SPD May Loosen Muzzle on Cops

In a move which will excite reporters and maybe not so much anybody else, the Seattle Police Department could soon ease a long-standing restrictions which discourage beat officers from talking to the media without approval from SPD’s chain of command.

While police lieutenants and captains are free to talk to the press, SPD’s manual directs sergeants and officers, who are on the front lines of the department, to refer all questions from reporters—whether they’re making innocuous inquires about injuries from car wrecks or digging for information on gang shootings—to the department’s media relations unit. That could soon change as SPD looks to bring its policies more in line with less-restrictive agencies like the King County Sheriff’s office and Washington State Patrol.

While the Seattle Police Department manual says media arriving at a crime scene must “be referred to a Public Information Officer or the on-scene commander,” the King County Sheriff’s manual says “Department members should endeavor to give the media the widest possible access to scenes” and authorizes deputies to “release all releasable information about an event to the news media upon request and implores them to “bring important newsworthy items to the attention of the news media.”

King County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Sgt. Cindi West says, “We don’t have any policies saying deputies can’t [talk to the press]. When you’re not disclosing information, people think you’re hiding things when you’re not. It’s just easier to let it out there than to not.”

Sgt. West declined to discuss how the KCSO’s policies compare to SPD’s.

While the SPD is currently under fire from the DOJ, and has long been the target of activist complaints about a lack of transparency, it’s not clear why the policy change is being discussed now. SPD media unit Sgt. Sean Whitcomb confirmed the department is considering revising the policy, and said the change has been in the works for a “long time,” but declined to discuss details.