Shootings, rape, fraud…it seems like nearly every day a story about police corruption makes the headlines.
Today is no different: This morning, the Associated Press broke a chilling story about widespread police misconduct.
The AP conducted an investigation and found that police officers across the US misuse confidential law enforcement databases to access personal information about romantic partners, ex-girlfriends, neighbors, journalists, business associates, politicians, and others for reasons that have nothing to do with police work.
Criminal history and driver databases are supposed to be used by officers to obtain information about people they encounter on the job.
But the AP’s investigation revealed that the systems can be exploited by officers who, “motivated by romantic quarrels, personal conflicts or voyeuristic curiosity,” disregard the rules – and sometimes the law – and use the systems for nefarious purposes.
In the most deplorable cases, cops have used the information to stalk or harass people. Some have tampered with or sold records they obtained.
There currently isn’t a single agency that tracks how often this kind of abuse happens nationwide, the AP found, and inconsistencies in record-keeping make it impossible to know how many violations actually occur.
Through their review, the AP found that, between 2013 – 2015, cops and employees who misused databases were fired, suspended, or resigned more than 325 times. In more than 250 instances, they received reprimands, counseling, or lesser discipline.
In more than 90 instances, unspecified discipline was given, and in many others, it wasn’t clear if any punishment was imposed at all.
The AP’s investigation was based on records requested from 50 states and about three dozen of the nation’s largest police departments. Some departments did not provide any records, some refused to share the information, and some said they do not track misuse at all. Florida reported hundreds of misuse cases of its driver database, but didn’t say how often officers were disciplined. Officials told the AP that some cases go undetected because there isn’t a way to distinguish questionable searches from legitimate ones.
Given these factors, it is safe to assume that the number of violations is much higher than what the AP found.
Carol Gibbs, database administrator with the Illinois State Police, told the AP:
If we know the officers in a particular agency have made 10,000 queries in a month, we just have no way to (know) they were for an inappropriate reason unless there’s some consequence where someone might complain to us.
The AP report is quite detailed (to read it, please see Across US, police officers abuse confidential databases), but here are some examples of the horrendous behavior that was discovered:
Other abuses include searching for information on family members (sometimes at their request), celebrities, and other officers.
Police officers are not the only ones misusing the databases: dispatchers, civilian employees, court employees, and high-ranking police officials also commit violations.
The AP’s investigation also found many cases of misuse violations that did not include specific information about the offenses or any punishment that may have been imposed. There’s no way to know how egregious many violations are. For example, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles reported about 400 violations in 2014 and 2015 of its Driver and Vehicle Information Database, or DAVID, but didn’t include the allegations or punishment.
Whether the improper use of databases is a federal crime or violates a trespass statute that criminalizes using a computer for other than authorized purposes has not been determined. The AP cites a particularly disturbing case as an example of the consequences of this uncertainty:
A federal appeals court last year reversed the computer-crime conviction of ex-NYPD officer Gilberto Valle, whom tabloids dubbed the “cannibal cop” for his online exchanges about kidnapping and eating women and who improperly used a police database to gather information. Valle argued that as an officer, he was legally authorized to access the database. The court deemed the statute ambiguous and said it risked criminalizing a broad array of computer use.
Gilberto Valle spent 21 months in prison, but was released in 2014 when a judge overturned his kidnapping conspiracy conviction, saying his behavior was fantasy role play. Earlier this year, CBS reported that Valle was considering attending law school or suing to get reinstated in the NYPD.
Just yesterday, it was reported that the American Civil Liberties Union of California obtained thousands of pages of documents showing California law enforcement agencies are secretly purchasing social media surveillance software and using it to spy on and target activists.
It is disturbing enough to know that cops have access to who-knows-what kind of information on all of us, but knowing that many of them will use that data for reasons ranging from mere curiosity to egregious purposes is downright frightening.
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Lily Dane is a staff writer for The Daily Sheeple. Her goal is to help people to “Wake the Flock Up!”