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Mónica Guzmán

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November 24, 2012 at 11:12 PM

Seattle’s police department finds its freshest official voice

Jonah Spangenthal-Lee is helping the Seattle Police Department release more information in a more approachable way. (Photo courtesy of the Seattle Police Department)

Even without the bylines, it’s not too hard to guess which posts on the Seattle Police Department’s “Blotter” blog were written by Jonah Spangenthal-Lee.

If the post is about a man who tried to rob people on Lake City Way by making his hand into the shape of a gun, it’ll call him a “human sad trombone” and say he had a “limited working knowledge of pantomime.” If it’s about a man masturbating in public in Columbia City, it’ll note that he was caught in “the throes of” said act and refused to stop because he was “almost finished.”

If it’s a helpful, hilarious post about what people should know before marijuana becomes legal in Washington, it’ll be titled “Marijwhatnow?” and draw 300,000 page views, 35,000 Facebook likes and delighted disbelief from readers near and far who figured police departments were too tone deaf to be this… cool.

They might have been right, in Seattle’s case, before March. That’s when the department made an official promise in its SPD 20/20 plan to provide better information to the public, make it “interesting” and share it “as often as possible.”

That same month, it hired Spangenthal-Lee.

The workaholic 29-year-old can’t claim too much credit for the police communications team’s now years-long transformation from a traditional press office into what it’s more or less become — a real-time digital newsroom. Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, who was behind some of the department’s more surprising tweets during this year’s May Day protests had been leading that charge long before he arrived (“We’re not sure what this is, but we know what it smells like,” went the tweet attached to a photo of a bag of feces officials found in a rioter’s backpack).

But Spangenthal-Lee pitched in on the design of “Tweets by Beat,” the ambitious neighborhood crime news feeds that got The New York Times’ attention last month. And “Marijwhatnow?” — which earned national praise from media worldwide for anticipating the information needs of Seattle residents and, incidentally, another flattering mention in The New York Times — was his idea.

If nothing else, Spangenthal-Lee is giving crime information its freshest official voice.

It should surprise no one who read that post that Spangenthal-Lee covered crime and more at Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger. What’s less evident, but more important, is that he went on to create his own one-man crime news site, seattlecrime.com, and ran it for more than a year.

Seattlecrime.com got a strong following while its author worked the beat. It was either create the site, he said, or let years of crime sources “dry up.” Choosing his stories, posting them and reading hundreds of comments brought him closer to a reality many crime reporters know: People are “hungry” for crime information.

Now that he’s on the official side of things, Spangenthal-Lee is helping push his colleagues toward giving more to the public in a more approachable way.

“If there’s information we can give to anyone,” he said, “we should give it to everyone.”

Press releases aren’t what they used to be, now that the department runs a blog, Twitter stream and Facebook page to reach people directly. In fact, a lot of what used to be drafted for the press is going straight onto the blog.

Informally, Spangenthal-Lee is working on a list of terms he and his colleagues should try not to use anymore, like saying there was a “disturbance” or that someone was “apprehended.” He calls it “cop-ese.”

Better to be direct with readers, and maybe, when appropriate, a little irreverent.

His influence is showing. I figured “Robbers assault man and take his Dr. Pepper” was a Spangenthal-Lee work. It was Detective Renee Witt’s.

Then there’s the information itself. Police press releases traditionally leave out specifics, like business names or the names of gangs, for example. In the past week Spangenthal-Lee has written about an attempted mugging at a Jack in the Box, and a battle between the “Tiny Raskal Gangsters” and the “Insane Boyz.”

He’ll also work in information about suspects’ criminal history, if it’s available. It’s hardly in-depth, but his reporter friends joke that he’s making it hard for them to get a scoop.

As for what information gets released, Spengenthal-Lee says the department is working to put out everything that doesn’t further victimize victims or make it harder for police to do their jobs — and means it.

“I always think I have to have big ‘people have a right to know!’ fights, and it never happens,” he said.

As a reporter, Spangenthal-Lee was the recipient of what the department considered sensitive information. An internal department investigation revealed last week tried to figure out who tipped him off, but was reportedly unsuccessful. Spangenthal-Lee did not reveal his source when he was hired as a contract blogger by the department, and probably never will.

The May Day protests were the first big news event where @seattlepd matched local news media accounts tweet for tweet in putting out some of the most widely read updates. When Ian Stawicki shot and killed five people later that month in a tragedy that shook the city, the department tweeted what it knew — to everyone — impressively fast.

A bigger challenge is listening. Plenty of people reach out via email and Twitter, but the department still allows no comments on the SPD blog, an issue that every couple of months the communications team talks about trying to fix — and hopefully will.

But so far Spangenthal-Lee and his colleagues are taking all the attention as validation.

They’re probably doing something right.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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