Across U.S., Police Officers Violate Confidential Database Rules to Stalk Ex-Lovers, Find Dates and More

News & Politics

A new Associated Press investigation finds that a troubling number of U.S. police officers have used confidential federal and state databases—which contain sensitive information on civilians, including home addresses, phone numbers birthdates and more—for their own personal use, for purposes that run the gamut from looking up information on potential dates to aiding friends in seeking revenge on their exes.

The investigation, which is based on a national survey of data from state and major city law enforcement agencies, turned up more than 325 cases between 2013 and 2015 when police department employees were suspended, fired or stepped down after database misuse was discovered. Less severe punishments resulted in another 250 cases, from slap-on-the-wrist written reprimands to no disciplinary action at all, and unspecified measures were taken in 90 cases. Since there is no central entity tasked with monitoring and cataloging incidents of database misuse, AP researchers suggest that their numbers likely fall short of capturing the big picture of database abuse in its entirety.

The stories gathered by AP staffers show cases in which officers or other police staffers showed brazen disregard for the rules in looking up private info for non-work-related matters. They point to the case of a “Mancos, Colorado, marshal [who] asked co-workers to run license plate checks for every white pickup truck they saw because his girlfriend was seeing a man who drove a white pickup.” One officer in Ohio looked up information on the landlord of a female friend, and then went to the landlord's home in the middle of the night to get money the cop said his friend was owed. Another Ohio officer used the database to aid in gathering information on an ex-girlfriend as he stalked her. These cases were rarities, in that they were egregious enough to merit the pursuit of criminal charges against the officers involved.

Perhaps a more typical case involves a Denver, Colorado cop who used crime databases to help with his dating prospects, reaching out to a woman he met in the midst of a rape case investigation. Ars Technica elaborates on the story, pulled from a 142-page Denver Independent Monitor Office report on police abuse of crime databases:

On May 15, 2015, a female hospital employee spoke with a DPD officer who was at the hospital to investigate a reported sexual assault. The female employee was not involved in the investigation, but the officer made ‘‘small talk’’ with her after his interview of the sexual assault victim. At the end of her shift, the female employee returned home and found a voicemail message from the officer on her personal phone. She had not given the officer her phone number, and was upset that he had obtained it (she assumed) by improperly using law enforcement computer systems. During an investigation into the incident, records revealed that the officer had, in fact, used [national and Colorado state] database[s] (and other DPD databases) to obtain her phone number, and the officer ultimately admitted to this conduct.

The report goes on to note that the officer was issued a “written reprimand” for database misuse and was docked two days’ pay for "leaving an unwelcome voice message that upset the female employee.”

While the AP notes that the number of cases indicating police wrongdoing on this front are dwarfed by the voluminous number of daily searches—which tally in the millions—incidents of database misuse are serious issues.

“It's personal. It's your address. It's all your information, it's your Social Security number, it's everything about you," Alexis Dekany, the Ohio woman whose cop ex-boyfriend used database information to stalk her, told the AP. "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."

That sentiment was echoed by Deb Roschen, who previously served as a commissioner in Wabasha County, Minnesota. Roschen, along with 17 others, filed a 2013 federal lawsuit alleging that local government officials and law enforcement personnel “violated the federal Driver's Privacy Protection Act and state common law claims for invasion of privacy by querying state driver record databases to obtain statutorily protected confidential information,” according to legal site Law360. Roschen indicated to AP reporters that the database searches were politically motivated, a reaction to her queries about the management of local funds use.

"Now there are people who do not like me that have all my private information... any information that could be used against me,” Roschen, who says a public records request indicated her daughter and spouse were also subject to illegal searches, told the AP. “They could steal my identity, they could sell it to someone. The sense of being vulnerable—there's no fix to that."

In mid-September, seven Oakland, Calif. police officers were charged in connection with a sex scandal involving an underage girl. According to the girl—who is now 19, but was under 18 at the time of the alleged acts—police officers provided her with database-derived information in exchange for sex. The cops, who stand accused of sexual abuse (which is absolutely what it should be called when adult cops have sex with an underage girl), allegedly either paid her or “tipp[ed] her to anti-prostitution stings or [ran] names of people she was curious about through confidential databases,” per SFGate. Three officers have resigned since the scandal first rocked the Bay Area.

In another recent high-profile case, the New York Times reports that former NYPD sergeant Ronald G. Buell “accepted money to tap into restricted law enforcement databases to furnish information to a former officer who was working as an investigator for criminal defense lawyers.” Buell was paid for his illegal searches, and the information he unearthed and passed along. He pleaded guilty this February and now faces up to five years behind bars.

The AP also noted cases driven by police boredom or tabloid interests, such as a Miami-Dade officer who dug up info on several celebrities, including LeBron James, just because.

Numerous investigators, including in Florida and Minnesota, have issued calls for a clampdown on police misuse of criminal database information, and policy changes to ensure adherence to proper protocols. Nicholas Mitchell, the Independent Monitor behind Denver’s exhaustive investigative report, recommends a number of measures, including harsher penalties for those found in violation of federal and state rules on the issue.

“With unprecedented amounts of personal information now available electronically, police departments must not only have clear policies that regulate access to that information, but must also discipline officers who misuse it,” Mitchell told the Times.

The problem of confidential civilian data misuse is not unique to the United States. A report from Big Brother Watch, a U.K.-based civil liberties and privacy rights group, found that between June 2011 and December 2015, approximately 2,300 “data breaches” were committed by law enforcement officers and other police department employees.

“Over 800 members of staff accessed personal information without a policing purpose and information was inappropriately shared with third parties more than 800 times,” the group wrote. “Specific incidents show officers misusing their access to information for financial gain” and other purposes unrelated to work.

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