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Saturday, January 26, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bill aims to protect privacy of police officers

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

House Bill 2490

What it would do: Exempt from disclosure personal information about a commissioned police officer and the officer's family, or information that could easily lead to the discovery of that information.

More information: Go to the Legislature home page at www.leg.wa.gov/legislature and search for HB 2490.

OLYMPIA — Rep. Bill Hinkle says a public-records bill he's sponsoring would help protect police officers and their families from retribution for doing their jobs.

But opponents say the proposal — the latest attempt to limit what is considered public information — is too broad, would cost too much to implement and isn't needed.

House Bill 2490 would exempt from disclosure personal information about a commissioned police officer or his or her family members. That would include home addresses, phone numbers, property and tax records and dates of birth.

State law already prohibits government agencies from releasing home addresses and phone numbers of employees — including police officers. But names, birth dates, salaries and job titles are generally available.

Under the bill, citizens could request the full name, year of birth and photograph of individual officers. The officers or their immediate supervisors would first be notified of the request and would be provided the name and city or county of the person requesting the information.

"We have a group of people in this country that protects the homes in our communities, and we're exposing them to a liability that is unfair," said Hinkle, R-Cle Elum.

The bill is opposed by the Coalition for Open Government and media organizations.

"My goal is to keep it from even getting a hearing," said Toby Nixon, president of the Coalition for Open Government, "because once it gets out in the wild, the law-enforcement community can put a lot of political pressure on the Legislature."

Rowland Thompson, a lobbyist for Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, said the bill would make it much harder for citizens to monitor police and learn about officers accused of wrongdoing.

"These are people who we give a lot of responsibility and trust to, and we allow them to move through the population armed with the ability to incarcerate people," Thompson said. "I mean, we trust them, but it isn't a blind trust."

Rep. Al O'Brien, D-Mountlake Terrace, one of 28 co-sponsors of the bill and a former Seattle police sergeant, says the disclosure of an officer's information could damage law enforcement.

"There are some people that can use that information as a way to intimidate officers," O'Brien said. "You inhibit the officers' ability to enforce the law. It could really put a hurt on law enforcement, in general."

A Web site promoting the bill, www.whowillprotecttheprotectors.com, lists a handful of news stories reporting threats or assaults against officers.

Michele Earl-Hubbard, a media-law attorney for Davis Wright Tremaine, said police have yet to show a specific case in Washington where release of an officer's information led to harassment or other retribution.

In 2001, a Mill Creek man posted the names, addresses, birth dates and Social Security numbers of Kirkland police officers online. He claimed his purpose was to let people know that police and their families "are locatable and accountable at a much more personal level than ever before."

Social Security numbers are not public and aren't released by government agencies.

Hinkle said the intent of his bill is to stop someone from getting a roster of police officers. Basic information on individual officers would still be available, he said.

"There's no public interest served by publishing a list with police officers' names and personal information on it," Hinkle said. "Absolutely none."

But Nixon, a former Republican state representative, said the bill's wording is much broader and seems to cover other public documents, including property records and voter-registration lists.

To withhold information covered by the bill, Nixon said, the state would have to create a database of every police officer and his or her family members — an expensive undertaking.

Earl-Hubbard said birth dates are particularly important to keep public.

Without them, she said, the media can't positively identify people or accurately cross-reference public employees with other databases, such as criminal-conviction records.

A year ago, Attorney General Rob McKenna opposed Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels' request for legislation to exempt public employees' birth dates from disclosure. The mayor argued that releasing such information makes employees vulnerable to identity theft.

In a letter to Nickels, McKenna called dates of birth "an important tool to help keep government accountable," and said there are better ways to protect against identity theft.

Law-enforcement organizations have tried before to block release of dates of birth, but Washington's courts ruled against them, Earl-Hubbard said. "They're not succeeding in court, so now they're trying to change the law," she said.

Karen Schweigert, a lawyer who drafted the bill, said the provision withholding dates of birth could be controversial among some legislators, "but it shouldn't be."

Police should be treated differently from other public employees, she said.

"We're dealing with a very specific class of individuals," she said. "The commissioning process for peace officers is very intense. They have a vested interest in making sure that they don't hire any criminals."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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