from the we're-from-the-gov't-and-we're-here-to-make-you-pay-for-our-mistakes dept
Law enforcement databases, while useful in investigations, are also severely problematic. Not only does the desire to "collect it all" result in databases full of information about innocent people, but very few agencies are serious about deterring database misuse. In most cases -- despite the constant threat of criminal prosecution -- most abusers are hit with nothing more than short suspensions for improper access.
Then there's the problem with the humans running the systems. When mistakes are made (or information is entered for more malicious reasons) by government agencies, the consequences for those mistakenly targeted can be severe.
During a bitter, year-long legal battle that ended last month, Mr Hanson was shocked to discover his name was embedded in the police database as a "person of interest" involved in "suspected criminal activity" and "possibly associating" with Comanchero Outlaw Motorcycle Gang members.
The intelligence entry carried the highest "A1" police reliability rating. But Fairfax Media can reveal the only basis for the report was that Mr Hanson's family car had been observed in the same street, at the same time, as "two motorcycle riders" wearing Comanchero shirts.
The appearance of Mark Hanson (not his real name) in the police database occurred after a traffic stop in a casino parking lot. The officer performing the stop jumped to several conclusions, stating that Hanson's car was spotted "in the vicinity of several sports cars and motorbikes" on another street. In addition, the officer referred to the vehicle Hanson was driving his family in as "hotted up."
These inferences -- all of which were based on coincidental observations not backed up by any info collected by the officer -- became the official police narrative, thanks to his report's entry into the law enforcement database. From that point on, former police officer Hanson was considered to be involved in gang-related activity.
Because Hanson is a former police officer, he was able to get this corrected. Most citizens don't have the power to make that happen. He approached police supervisors about his database entry and was given some vague assurances that the bullshit he had been subjected to because of the officer's report might not happen again.
When Mr Hanson canvassed senior police about the revelation, the force's Professional Standards chief inspector Gregory Jewiss confirmed that the constable had generated an "entity link" containing unconfirmed information but said there was no evidence to suggest "any malicious intent" had been involved in its creation. He added the officer would be spoken with to ensure his "knowledge" was "improved" and such linkages were "not made again".
But the assurance that his database record had been purged did nothing to mitigate the damage already done. Hanson's entirely fake criminal status had already made its way into the hands of other agencies with access to the database, like State Crime Command's gangs squad and the Australian Crime Commission.
Hanson was forced to go to court to get this information excised. The removal the chief inspector assured him about wasn't performed proactively. Having both the money and knowledge to press his case effectively was key for Hanson's courtroom success. For most people, these two resources are beyond their reach, as was confirmed by a recent COPS (the criminal database in question) forum held by the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties.
The forum found that while entries in the database can result in extra police attention, it is "highly unlikely" that people would ever obtain intelligence reports and there is no entitlement to amendment of the database.
Citizens have no right to correct law enforcement's wrongs and no right to see what information has been gathered on them. They are almost completely at the mercy of the government. And the government is no less prone to errors or vindictiveness than those outside of it. The difference is that the government can do far more damage than any individual can, as it has the ability to mobilize entire agencies based on bad information.