For most of their lives, Eric Rachner and Phil Mocek had no strong feelings about police. Mocek, who grew up in Kansas, said he regarded police officers as honorable civil servants, like firefighters. Both chose careers as programmers: Rachner, 39, is an independent cyber-security expert, while Mocek, 40, works on administrative software used by dentists.
But through their shrewd use of Washington’s Public Records Act, the two Seattle residents are now the closest thing the city has to a civilian police-oversight board. In the last year and a half, they have acquired hundreds of reports, videos, and 911 calls related to the Seattle Police Department’s internal investigations of officer misconduct between 2010 and 2013. And though they have only combed through a small portion of the data, they say they have found several instances of officers appearing to lie, use racist language, and use excessive force—with no consequences. In fact, they believe that the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) has systematically “run interference” for cops. In the aforementioned cases of alleged officer misconduct, all of the involved officers were exonerated and still remain on the force.
“We’re trying to do OPA’s job for them because OPA was so explicitly not interested in doing their own job,” said Rachner.
Among some of Rachner and Mocek’s findings: a total of 1,028 SPD employees (including civilian employees) were investigated between 2010 and 2013. (The current number of total SPD staff is 1,820.) Of the 11 most-investigated employees—one was investigated 18 times during the three-year period—every single one of them is still on the force, according to SPD.
In 569 allegations of excessive or inappropriate use of force (arising from 363 incidents), only seven were sustained—meaning 99 percent of cases were dismissed. Exoneration rates were only slightly smaller when looking at all the cases between 2010 and 2013—of the total 2,232 allegations, 284 were sustained.
“This is exactly why we have the robust Public Records Act that we have,” said Jared Friend, director of technology and liberty for the ACLU of Washington. “People are obviously dissatisfied with how OPA is handling its investigations, and our Public Records Act has enabled folks like Phil and Eric to engage in oversight. Through the work they’re doing, we can see some of the deficiencies and lapses in the process.”
SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb agreed that what Rachner and Mocek are doing “is great,” and that “the more information that’s publicly available, the better.” But he added that OPA has its own independent oversight, in the form of an OPA auditor and review board. “SPD has been a leader in government transparency, with SPD staff receiving two Washington Coalition for Open Government awards since 2012,” he wrote in an e-mail.
In response to a 2010 incident (of which The Stranger obtained dash-cam video) in which two officers derided poor black people and joked about beating them up, Whitcomb said the incident was investigated and that several police reforms have been instituted since then. Both of the involved officers remain on the force.
How did two nerds come to hold SPD accountable? It started in 2008, when Seattle police arrested Rachner during a game of “urban golf.” The cops charged him with obstruction, but Rachner fought the charges and won. Then he sued the police for withholding video of his arrest, which they had denied possessing. The video turned up, and in the end, Rachner won more than $60,000 in settlements.
Then, in February 2011, Rachner met Mocek at an SPD town hall meeting. Mocek had had his own run-in with police. In 2009, security agents at Sea-Tac Airport threw him in a jail cell for lacking identification and causing a disturbance. Mocek challenged the misdemeanor charges against him and, like Rachner, won. Their run-ins and legal battles with security agencies galvanized them, they said, to hold police accountable for mistakes and abuses.
And Rachner saw an opportunity to do just that when, in August of 2011, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that police records of internal investigations into officer misconduct were subject to the state’s Public Records Act, one of the strongest transparency laws in the country. Prior to the ruling, Rachner believes, the OPA, which investigates police misconduct, would systematically “sweep all these records into the investigative file, and then after the officer was exonerated, none of those records were accessible.” They were never destined to see the light of day.
Kathryn Olson, the OPA director from 2007 until 2012, was widely seen as more of a lapdog than a watchdog. During her tenure, the department fell under a federal consent decree, requiring it to address a pattern of excessive force and concerns about racial bias.
The day after the state supreme court ruling, Rachner filed a public records request for all OPA records from 2010 to 2013. Six days later, the head of the SPD public disclosure unit responded in an e-mail message, “The estimated cost for the records you have requested is $29,370.00 (plus postage).” (That amount was later revised down to $21,500, plus postage.)
“At the time,” Rachner said, “I had no money to spend, and I was like, fuck. So I dropped it.”
He rues the decision now. Under the department’s contract with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, the largest public union in the state, OPA is required to shred its records after three years. That means that from 2011 to 2013, the department was destroying records covering the period from 2008 to 2010—the crucial period leading up to the federal government’s investigation of SPD and the initiation of the consent decree.
Then, Rachner got a break—in the form of another payout for a violation of the Public Records Act. In the fall of 2012, Ben Livingston (a past Stranger contributor) was the subject of a Washington State Patrol traffic stop. Livingston requested dash-cam video of the traffic stop, but the Washington State Patrol denied possessing such footage. The following year, Livingston, Rachner, Mocek, and Seattle civil rights attorney Cleveland Stockmeyer created a nonprofit called the Center for Open Policing (COP). Their first effort was to sue.
They won, and the state patrol settled to the tune of about $23,000. “I particularly enjoyed that case,” said Mocek.
Perhaps more significantly, Rachner and COP had suddenly come into possession of the funds they needed to follow through on the public records request for Seattle’s OPA data. On December 9, 2013, Rachner walked into SPD headquarters and wrote a check for $2,150—a down payment that would get the disclosure process rolling.
“The guy at the public-records desk was like, ‘I’ve never seen one this big!'” recalled Rachner, flashing a sheepish grin.
In the intervening 17 months, however, the SPD has delivered less than 10 percent of the records, according to Rachner, and some of the files are incomplete. At this pace, the SPD won’t fully comply with his records request until 2028. “We’re never going to catch up at this rate,” he said, calling the flow of records an unacceptable “trickle.” He plans to file more requests for post-2013 OPA data.
A recent City of Seattle audit of the police department’s public disclosure unit found that it relies on an “antiquated and inefficient system,” and is “risking legal liability and endangering the public trust,” the Seattle Times reported on March 18.
Rachner believes that the big problem with policing right now “is that police misconduct is evaluated from the standard of the police, and not the standards of the community.”
The name of their nonprofit (COP), Mocek said, originally stood for “Citizens Overseeing Police.” “That was one of our goals,” he said. “Empower regular people to perform their own investigations of police.”
But even with the “trickle” of records coming from the SPD, Rachner and Mocek are already overwhelmed by reams of data—thousands of pages, along with hours of dash-cam videos and 911 dispatch calls. “We’re sitting on a heap of records,” Rachner said.
“We’re just a group of people who are fully employed,” doing police accountability work in their spare time, Mocek added.
COP considered dumping the raw data online for anyone to view, but decided against it because it would involve the publication of sensitive personal details—things like mental illness, drug addiction, or cases involving minors.
The solution they have in mind involves applying for grants, or even some kind of crowdsourcing. But they’re not sure how to do it.
In the meantime, Rachner and Mocek will continue to file requests and comb through the data, attempting to hold police officers accountable.
“Ideally, we should be able to evaluate these things through the OPA process,” said the ACLU’s Jared Friend. “I think the work they’re doing is great, and I think we should be able to learn a lot from it, and hopefully it will stimulate some change.”
Originally published on thestranger.com by Ansel Herz