By Sadie Gurman
and Eric Tucker
DENVER (AP) — Police officers across the country misuse confidential law enforcement databases to get information on romantic partners, business associates, neighbors, journalists and others for reasons unrelated to police work, an Associated Press investigation has found.
Criminal-history and driver databases legitimately give officers critical information about people they encounter on the job. But those systems can also be exploited by officers who are motivated by romantic quarrels, personal conflicts or voyeuristic curiosity to sidestep policies and sometimes the law for the purpose of snooping.
No single agency tracks how often this sort of abuse happens nationwide, and record-keeping inconsistencies make it impossible to know how many violations occur in a given time period.
Using records requests to state agencies and big-city police departments, the AP has found that law enforcement officers and employees who misused databases were fired, suspended or resigned more than 325 times between 2013 and 2015. They received reprimands, counseling and lesser discipline in more than 250 instances, the review found.
MADISON (AP) — The Associated Press has counted more than 20 cases of database misuse that resulted in discipline between 2013 and 2015, using records provided by the Wisconsin Department of Justice.
The names of the employees involved are blacked out, but the department produced email correspondence between individual police agencies and state officials regarding concerns about misuse.
The cases tell, for instance, of a University of Wisconsin-Madison police captain who “ran the registration plate of a woman that he thought might be interested in him” and left a card on her car, according to an email sent by a department official to the state. The officer was suspended, the email said.
A Grand Chute employee queried about his son on more than one occasion and later resigned and accepted a job at another agency, the records show. Four dispatchers in Manitowoc County were accused of running checks on a supervisor after hearing rumors about her, and “at least one shared the information” with a party outside of law enforcement, according to one email. The dispatchers were suspended, and a fifth one was subsequently punished as well, according to the Manitowoc County Joint Dispatch Center.
In Madison, an officer was accused of running criminal-records checks related to a felony offender/probationer who worked at his private business and “either directly or indirectly advised” the person of a warrant. And a Sun Prairie officer “shared an individual’s driving status with his daughter, who was dating that individual,” according to email correspondence from 2014.
In some of the other cases disclosed by the state, the nature of the misuse was not made clear, nor was the discipline. The violations generally concern the state’s Transaction Information for the Management of Enforcement system, also known as Time. That system, available to law-enforcement agencies, holds criminal histories, driver’s license and vehicle registration information, protection-order and injunction files and other sorts of information. The system is managed by the state’s Crime Information Bureau.
Unspecified discipline was imposed in more than 90 instances. In other cases, though, it wasn’t clear if punishment was given at all. And the number of violations was surely far higher since the records that were provided were spotty at best.
Among those punished: An Ohio officer who pleaded guilty to stalking an ex-girlfriend and who had looked up information on her, a Michigan officer who looked up the addresses of women he found attractive, and two Miami-Dade officers who ran checks on a journalist who aired unflattering stories about the department.
“It’s personal. It’s your address. It’s all your information. It’s your Social Security number, it’s everything about you,” said Alexis Dekany, whose ex-boyfriend, an Akron police officer, pleaded guilty to stalking her. “And when they use it for ill purposes to commit crimes against you — to stalk you, to follow you, to harass you … it just becomes so dangerous.”
The officer ran searches on her male friends, students from a course he had taught and others, prosecutors said.
Misuse accounts for only a tiny fraction of the millions of daily database queries that are run during police encounters. Still, incomplete, inconsistent tracking of the illegitimate practice frustrates efforts to document its pervasiveness.
“A lot of people have complicated personal lives and very strong passions,” said Jay Stanley, an American Civil Liberties Union privacy expert. “There’s greed, there’s lust, there’s all the deadly sins. And often, accessing information is a way for people to act on those human emotions.”
The AP tally, from records requested from 50 states and about three dozen of the nation’s largest police departments, unquestionably falls short of the true number. Some departments didn’t produce records, refused to disclose information, said they don’t track misuse or produced incomplete or unclear data. Some cases go unnoticed because of the difficulty involved in attempts at distinguishing dubious searches from legitimate ones.
The AP’s requests encompassed local databases and the FBI-administered National Crime and Information Center, which houses records on various sorts of people, including sex offenders, gang members, fugitives and people reported missing. Other statewide systems contain motor-vehicle records, birth dates and photos.
Violations frequently arise from romantic pursuits or domestic entanglements. A Denver officer searched the phone number of a hospital employee he met during a sex-assault investigation and called her. Misuse is sometimes also a result of personal squabbles. A North Olmsted, Ohio, officer admitted looking up a friend’s landlord and showing up to demand the return of money he said she was owed.
Deb Roschen, a former commissioner in Wabasha County, Minn., alleged in a lawsuit that law enforcement and government employees inappropriately ran searches on her and other politicians over the course of 10 years. The searches came as retaliation for questions she had raised about county spending and sheriff’s programs, she said.
An appeals court dismissed her suit. But, she said, “Twenty years from now… I’m still going to be thinking about it. The sense of being vulnerable, there’s no fix to that.”
The AP looked mainly at officers who had accessed information about others but also counted some cases in which they divulged information without authorization, or ran checks on themselves for personal purposes. The tally also includes some cases in which little is known about the offense, because some agencies provided no detail about a violation except to say that it resulted in discipline. It wasn’t always clear if database misuse was the sole reason for punishment.
The AP tried to exclude benign violations. But record-keeping variations proved a great impediment to such attempts.
California agencies, for instance, reported that more than 75 suspensions, resignations and terminations arose from the misuse of the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System between 2013 and 2015. But the records didn’t specify the allegations.
Officers are only occasionally prosecuted. One recent case involved a retired New York Police Department sergeant who admitted to selling NCIC information to a private investigator.
Law enforcement officials have taken steps to try to limit the abuse.
The Florida Highway Patrol requires troopers to sign a disclaimer when they access the state’s Driver and Vehicle Information Database. Miami-Dade police do quarterly audits in which officers can be randomly asked to explain searches, said Christopher Carothers, major of the professional compliance bureau.
“The idea that police would betray that trust out of curious entertainment or truly bad intent, that’s very disturbing and unsettling,” Carothers said.