How public records gave us a window into WA police misconduct

Being home on maternity leave during last year's Black Lives Matter protests got a reporter thinking about how to look deeper into police misdeeds.

Three photos: Two police officers walking through Chinatown-International District, police wearing gas masks through a cloud of smoke, and police officers with bikes in front of Tacoma's city-county building

A Crosscut investigation found at least 183 police officers flagged for issues such as dishonesty, bias and excessive force remain in law enforcement. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

When protests broke out last year following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, I was at home with a new baby.

So much was happening in the world — and many journalists were doing a terrific job covering it.

But, during my final weeks of maternity leave, I found myself wondering: How can we glimpse what is happening inside police departments across the state? How can we know more about what is happening not just in Seattle, but all over Washington?

There’s no real database documenting every instance of police officer misconduct across our state. Although efforts are underway to shed more light on officers’ disciplinary records and beef up the process for decertifying problem officers, the public is often left in the dark.

Around the same time, I had just read a story in The Seattle Times about two Snohomish County deputies who were fired and rehired. Those officers, even though they got their jobs back, were to remain on the county prosecutor’s list of witnesses with credibility problems.

I had heard of these lists before. Commonly known as Brady lists, they’re a way for prosecutors to keep track of officers whose past actions could cast doubt on their testimony in court. 

That meant that prosecutors across the state are holding lists of officers who have been credibly accused of offenses such as lying, filing inaccurate reports, using excessive force or showing racial bias.

If these lists exist, I thought, why not get them?

As soon as I got back from maternity leave in early July, I started making public records requests in every county.

The responses I received were not uniform. A few counties have a neatly organized list of officers, with an adjacent column explaining what conduct put them on the list. Others have a sprawling collection of files or a list of names without much other information.

It was up to me to compile these documents into something usable. I began making my own database listing every officer on a county Brady list across the state, along with whatever information I could get to illustrate what landed them on the list.

After eliminating officers who had moved out of state or had left law enforcement entirely, I filed dozens of follow-up records requests with individual police agencies to help fill in the gaps.

That nine months of work led to the project we published on Thursday, which found that at least 183 currently working officers across Washington state have been flagged by prosecutors for having credibility problems. We also found some cases where officers had been fired, but won their jobs back through arbitration.

An officer’s word can be enough to land people in jail or get them charged with a crime. For that reason, we thought it was important to look at officers whose truthfulness and judgment have been called into question — as well as the reasons some of them have kept their jobs.

Most police departments require that their officers be truthful and act with integrity. When officers fail to do so, we think the public has a right to know.

This story was first published in Crosscut's Weekly newsletter. Want to hear more from reporters like Melissa Santos? Sign up for the newsletter, below.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos is Crosscut’s staff reporter covering state politics and the Legislature.