The more journalists and other FOIA enthusiasts gain access to public records, the more we discover that a combination of access and power tends to result in abuse. Even as this abuse goes unaddressed, law enforcement agencies are striving to add more personal information to their databases, extending far past the usual "name/last known location" to encompass a vast array of biometric data.
Privacy watchdogs have been fighting against these for good reason: very little is known about the contents of these databases or the controls put in place to protect the info from inappropriate access. What is known is that these databases are misused by law enforcement officers routinely. What's also been discovered is that this routine misuse is rarely ever punished to the extent the law allows. Warnings about possible jail time are meaningless when the usual punishment usually ranges from nothing at all to short suspensions.
The Associated Press has obtained another pile of documents from public records request that show little has changed. Abuse of access is still a common occurrence, as is the lack of meaningful consequences. There's no almost no oversight and no federal law enforcement body holding agencies accountable for misuse of databases under their control.
No single agency tracks how often the abuse happens nationwide, and record-keeping inconsistencies make it impossible to know how many violations occur.
But the AP, through records requests to state agencies and big-city police departments, found 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 or lesser discipline in more than 250 instances, the review found.
Unspecified discipline was imposed in more than 90 instances reviewed by AP. In many other cases, it wasn't clear from the records if punishment was given at all. The number of violations was surely far higher since records provided were spotty at best, and many cases go unnoticed.
What was uncovered from the incomplete set of records is the expected behavior. Give someone access to a wealth of other people's personal information and it will be used for personal reasons. Law enforcement officers have misused the databases to stalk and harass exes, look up women they find attractive, and to search for something to discredit journalists and other critics.
Violations frequently arise from romantic pursuits or domestic entanglements, including when a Denver officer became acquainted with a hospital employee during a sex-assault investigation, then searched out her phone number and called her at home. A Mancos, Colorado, marshal 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, an investigative report shows.
In Florida, a Polk County sheriff's deputy investigating a battery complaint ran driver's license information of a woman he met and then messaged her unsolicited through Facebook.
Officers have sought information for purely personal purposes, including criminal records checks of co-workers at private businesses. A Phoenix officer ran searches on a neighbor during the course of a longstanding dispute. A North Olmsted, Ohio, officer pleaded guilty this year to searching for a female friend's landlord and showing up in the middle of the night to demand the return of money he said was owed her.
Most abuse of law enforcement databases goes undiscovered. The systems generally have no way to tell appropriate use from inappropriate use. Officials who did agree to speak on the record noted that the usual indication of misuse tends to be complaints filed by those targeted by the illegal searches. And that generally only happens when officers perform other illegal or abusive actions, like the previously-mentioned stalking and harassment.
Any attempt to quantify these illegal searches is likely fruitless for the time being. The police haven't shown much interest in policing themselves, and the DOJ has never floated the idea of collecting data on database misuse. Violations are not required to be reported to the FBI. That agency performs spot checks of database requests, but uses a small sampling and the audits are far from comprehensive. Even when records do exist, law enforcement agencies are reluctant to release them. Several records requests by the AP were denied.
On top of that, laws covering access to law enforcement databases vary from locality to locality, and even at the federal level, the issue of illegal vs. inappropriate still hasn't been conclusively determined. The DOJ often displays tremendous enthusiasm when wielding the CFAA against citizens for "unauthorized access," but seems far less willing to do so when law enforcement officers use criminal databases for personal reasons.
It's almost impossible to deter inappropriate behavior when nearly everyone involved takes a hands off approach to the issue. Trying nothing obviously isn't working. And the more that's harvested by the government under the auspices of law enforcement, the more data there is available to be abused.
This is just another item in a long list of law enforcement abuses that has gone unaddressed for decades now -- either internally or by the federal government. Trust is something that's earned. Trust shouldn't just be handed over, and that level should deteriorate as abuse is exposed, rather than remain unchanged. But that's not what has happened over the years. Instead, law enforcement agencies benefit from a perpetual benefit of a doubt. The end result is obvious: agencies and their employees have no problem abusing trust because they've expended no effort in "earning" it.