SPD dash-cam video showing officers apprehending Miguel Oregon for reckless driving in March 2010, when one of officers said, "If it weren't for my badge, I'd skull-fuck you and drag you down the street." Charges against Oregon were later dropped.
To address the Seattle Police Department's chronic use of excessive force against suspects and refusing to provide video evidence, one Seattle man has created an online archive of SPD's police car dash-cam footage for people intent on pursuing their grievances in court.
The bare-bones website is called seattlepolicevideo.com. It's a searchable database that registers every dash-cam video logged by every police car in SPD's fleet from August 2008 to August 2011. The site doesn't feature the videos themselves; rather, it catalogs videos, receipt like, so that citizens can order a copy from SPD via a public disclosure request. The videos can be searched by date, time, and officer's name or serial number.
"For years, the Seattle Police Department has routinely concealed in-car video recordings from defendants, from citizens who complain about police misconduct, from the media, and from the public," says Eric Rachner, who created the site. "The purpose of this website is to keep them honest about what videos got made when court cases arise."
Rachner says his intent is to increase access to videos that police refuse to provide or otherwise make difficult to request. For example, Komo news's recent story about a dash-cam video of police threatening to make up evidence about suspects, or attorney James Egan's stymied attempts to access 36 police dash-cam videos involving officers with a track record of misconduct (the city is currently suing both Egan and Komo to stop the release of the videos, citing conflicting state public disclosure and privacy laws).
And officially, the department supports what Rachner is doing.
"We certainly don't have a problem with it—we support it," says SPD Sergeant Sean Whitcomb, a spokesman for the department. "It’s a third-party solution where people are taking information and making it more available to the public in the spirit of open information. I, personally, congratulate him."
Here's how Rachner does it: He scans local news stories for high-profile cases and contacts the victims (or their lawyers) to tell them how to check his database for confirmation of video evidence. It's not a business venture; Rachner charges nothing for his services. "I’ve reached out to three or four people engaged in lawsuits with the city and said, 'Hey I don’t know if they’ve been honest with you but there’s record of your incident,'" Rachner explains.
He decided to launch the website after his own incredible clash with the department.
In 2008, Rachner was briefly arrested for refusing to provide identification to Seattle police officers responding to an urban golf assault. Rachner filed a complaint against the officers with SPD's Office of Professional Accountability, claiming that the arrest was unlawful because his actions weren't illegal. The officers were cleared of misconduct by the OPA, and Rachner was charged with misdemeanor obstruction. "I got hauled into no fewer than four court hearings over a seven-month period," says Rachner. "It felt like retaliation."
When Rachner asked SPD for video evidence, via a public disclosure request, of his arrest to help prove his case, he was told by officials that it didn't exist. "Then I googled Coban—the dashcam video system SPD uses—and found out that they have a permanent activity log of every video that is stored on their cameras for three years," he explains. "I asked SPD for the video logs and that’s when their demeanor changed." The logs proved that there was not just one video of his arrest—there were seven separate videos that had been accessed and watched by the OPA. So he sued the department in 2010 for failing to turn over the videos.
Rachner settled that lawsuit and a second lawsuit filed in 2011—this time for false arrest and obstruction of justice—with the city for upwards of $110,000. Still, the matter didn't feel settled. "Dealing with police who are charging you for a crime they know you didn't commit can obliterate your faith in the department," he says. "And watching the OPA exonerate those officers for their crimes will kill your faith in justice."
So Rancher asked SPD for all the video data going back three years and got back 1,105 results. "I decided to do a retrospective analysis of who else they haven’t gotten their videos," he says. This serves another purpose: Rachner is using the database to check the credibility of each civilian use-of-force complaint against an officer that the OPA has exonerated over the last three years.
He estimates that there have been 397 allegations of stemming from about 250 individual incidents, "and none of them were sustained," he says. "About half of those incidents have video that the victims or their lawyers could access." (Side note: Using Rachner's three-year time frame and the OPA's monthly reports, I counted 321 allegations of unnecessary force, of which three incidents were sustained, or 0.9 percent. In contrast, the Department of Justice has estimated that SPD engages in unnecessary force 20 percent of the time.)
The database has limits: It can only be searched if an individual has an officer's name or serial number, and only includes logs from August 2008 to August 2011. But that will soon change—Rachner plans on filing a new PDR every quarter for updated information."And I’m just going to keep filing quarterly refresher PDR requests now until the end of time to ensure that the data's current," he says.