In early 2011, City of Fife police officers submitted a whistleblower complaint to the City Manager. The complaint covered a range of topics including discrimination, misappropriation of public funds and improper workplace relationships. The City retained an outside entity to investigate the allegations. The City determined the investigation was thorough and the allegations were either not sustained or unfounded. One of the complaining officers submitted a public records request for the report, audio recordings and transcripts of interviews, and other records relating to the whistleblower complaint and investigation. The City began producing installments in May 2012, but redacted names and identifying information of witnesses, the accused officers, and complaining parties. The City also commenced an action for declaratory and injunctive relief regarding its obligations to produce records.
On February 24, 2015, the Washington State Court of Appeals determined that while the City’s records were “specific investigative records,” and might qualify for a public records exemption, that was only a part of the test. City of Fife v. Hicks, (Division II, No. 45450-5). The Court held that the City was unable to demonstrate non-disclosure was essential to effective law enforcement. The Court pointed to earlier precedent that expressly rejected the concept that a “generalized fear that disclosure of witness names will chill cooperation within investigations,” citing Sargent v. Seattle Police Department, 179 Wn.2d 376, 395 (2013) (generalized fear, alone, insufficient to justify non-disclosure). In the Fife case, the Court also rejected the City’s claim that disclosure of witnesses would violate a witness’s right to privacy. This was particularly the case here where dealing with public employees whose conduct is a matter of greater interest to the public. Additionally, the City could point to no foundation that the requester’s own name could be redacted from a record requested by that person. While this case may not present substantially new information for agencies complying with the Washington Public Records Act, it does emphasize the need to manage investigations in a manner attentive to future Public Records Act responsibilities.