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.

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  1. icon
    M. Alan Thomas II (profile), 3 Feb 2014 @ 3:28pm

    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.

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