Hide Techdirt is off for the long weekend! We'll be back with our regular posts tomorrow.

St. Louis Police Officers Caught Running Possibly Politically-Motivated Background Checks On Police Board Members

from the access-denied dept

The problem with access to other people’s personal data is that the potential for misuse is ever present. This is inherent in any system, whether it’s the NSA’s or a local politician’s — simply because humans are humans. The solution is accountability, not layers of bureaucratic control. That’s what appears to be the focus in this story of alleged background check abuse by St. Louis County police officers, which is a good start.

Two St. Louis county police officers who were assigned to the detail of County Executive Charles Dooley have had their access to a criminal database suspended while an investigation over whether they were running unauthorized background checks, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The officers are specifically accused of running such a check on a former candidate for the police board, a body that’s theoretically supposed to supervise officers.

Internal affairs is now investigating the two officers in order to determine why it was accessed and if there was any additional abuse. County police chief Tom Fitch found himself questioning the motivations and actions of these two officers after they were inadvertently “outed” by a member of Dooley’s office.

Questions first arose in October when Dooley’s chief of staff, Garry Earls, announced to the county council that a criminal background check into former police board candidate David Spence had come back clean, County Chief Tim Fitch said.

Fitch said he had questioned how the county administration would know that information because he didn’t believe it was his officers’ place to run the checks.

Officers running background checks on their own supervisors isn’t a good idea, especially when it gives the unauthorized access the appearance of being politically motivated — and possibly ordered by a county official. (This has been denied, of course.) Simply running a check for any other reason than “criminal justice” is itself illegal. And now Fitch is trying to figure out who else these officers have “checked out” in violation of policy.

At this point, the two officers must ask a supervisor to run names for them and have no access to the REGIS database. Until further details emerge, this at least prevents misuse by the two accused of unauthorized access. Whether there’s evidence of more abuse remains to be seen. On the downside, Chief Fitch is being rather cagey with details on how much abuse has been uncovered.

Fitch would not say how many names the officers ran during their time assigned to Dooley’s detail, citing the ongoing internal investigation.

“The number (of names) isn’t important,” he said. “What’s important is why it was done and who asked them to do it.”

Understandably, some details need to be withheld during an ongoing investigation, but Fitch is a bit off when he says the total number isn’t important. Checks that complied with department policy obviously don’t matter, so it’s only the total number that fall outside compliance that anyone’s worried about. That number matters just as much as the “why.” The “who” behind it matters as well, although the accused officers still had the option to say “no” if they were indeed asked to break the rules.

While it’s refreshing to see a police chief unwilling to downplay his officers’ misconduct, the intensity must be maintained not only through this investigation, but going forward to ensure incidents like these become rarer and rarer. And if it turns out that the database was frequently misused, the consequences need to be as severe as the abuse.

Filed Under: , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “St. Louis Police Officers Caught Running Possibly Politically-Motivated Background Checks On Police Board Members”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
16 Comments
Ninja (profile) says:

And if it turns out that the database was frequently misused, the consequences need to be as severe as the abuse.

As an exercise for my fellow readers what would be a fitting punishment for the abusers below?

– Clapper (lied to Congress)
– NSA, FBI, CIA heads (violated the Constitution)
– Bush, Obama and related (violated Human Rights, practiced torture – Guantanamo)
– Carmen Ortiz (Swartz case)
– Officers that beat that homeless guy to death (even as he called out for his dad during the ordeal)

Now that we are done exercising (and yes, I know of more examples and I know it is restricted to the US) one has to question why the heck NOTHING happened in any of those cases and what can be done to actually make those (and others) accountable for their actions.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

As an exercise for my fellow readers what would be a fitting punishment for the abusers below?

– Clapper (lied to Congress)
– NSA, FBI, CIA heads (violated the Constitution)
– Bush, Obama and related (violated Human Rights, practiced torture – Guantanamo)
– Carmen Ortiz (Swartz case)
– Officers that beat that homeless guy to death (even as he called out for his dad during the ordeal)

Now that we are done exercising (and yes, I know of more examples and I know it is restricted to the US) one has to question why the heck NOTHING happened in any of those cases and what can be done to actually make those (and others) accountable for their actions.

Allow me to respond on EVERYONE’s behalf.

You cannot touch the dirt-bags in my favorite party.

Anonymous Coward says:

– Clapper (lied to Congress) Prison
– NSA, FBI, CIA heads (violated the Constitution) Public Execution
– Bush, Obama and related (violated Human Rights, practiced torture – Guantanamo) Prison Guantanamo life
– Carmen Ortiz (Swartz case) Prison Guantanamo
– Officers that beat that homeless guy to death (even as he called out for his dad during the ordeal) Prison General Population (let the Prisoners do their thing)

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Anyone else so not shocked by this?
It is human nature to want to learn more about things, and despite rules people seem to be flexible about those rules if they can justify it in their minds.

Of course if a ‘hacker’ does it, it is a huge incident with all sorts of coverage and hundreds of years detention threatened… when an authority figure does it, we always have to wait for the investigation and it is downplayed.

Once again we are left wondering why those given authority face less than a regular citizen doing the exact same thing.
Justice is supposed to be blind, and yet it is always caught peeking and looking away when it might have to find against a cog of its own system.
Perhaps if we had some of those awesome enhancements that are used to double sentences against those in the low court automatically applied when someone in a position of power abuses the system we might be able to impress upon them they are not actually above the law.

Anonymous Coward says:

It doesn’t matter how many unauthorized checks they ran. Currently, the issue is did they run ANY unauthorized checks. Once it is determined that they did, IF they did, only then does the number start to matter.
But what was that federal law that these officer’s will be prosecuted under for unauthorized use of computer account?

Anonymous Coward says:

I don’t quite get it. Don’t the police run background checks on the public routinely, such as every time they ask to see a driver’s license – whether justified or not?

Or is driving with a burned-out tail light or with temporary license plates a telltale sign of criminal behavior that warrants further investigation?

Anonymous Coward says:

So the police Chief, who’s a high-ranking supervisor himself. Suddenly has a problem with unauthorized background checks, when they’re being carried out by low-ranking officers beneath him.

Makes sense. We can’t have low-ranking street cops digging through databases, looking for dirt on their high-ranking bosses.

Low-ranking people should never be allowed to run searches on someone who’s above their rank and pay-grade. Of course, it’s perfectly fine for those of higher-rank, to run all the searches they want on low-ranking people, or non-ranking civilians.

I imagine the bulk unconstitutional spy program’s search rules policy, probably has the same set of rules in place. You can search down the totem pole, but not up it.

M. Alan Thomas II (profile) says:

My impression is that the county cops are much better than the city cops, at least when I left. (I lived in St. Louis City for about 25 years.) The county cops might run non-whites out of town, but the city cops are more likely to shoot unarmed black men and are very resistant to oversight.

Please remember that it’s an independent city, so the City and the surrounding County are completely unrelated legal entities.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...
Loading...