DENVER (AP) — Police officers across the country misuse confidential law enforcement databases to get information on romantic partners, business associates, neighbors, journalists and others for reasons unrelated to police work, an Associated Press investigation has found.
Criminal-history and driver databases legitimately give officers critical information about people they encounter on the job. But those systems can also be exploited by officers, motivated by romantic quarrels, personal conflicts or voyeuristic curiosity, who sidestep policies and sometimes the law by snooping.
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 and 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 if punishment was given at all. The number of violations was surely far higher since records provided were spotty at best.
Among those punished: An Ohio officer who pleaded guilty to stalking an ex-girlfriend and who had looked up information on her, a Michigan officer who looked up addresses of women he found attractive, and two Miami-Dade officers who ran checks on a journalist who aired unflattering stories about the department.
“It’s personal. It’s your address. It’s all your information. It’s your Social Security number, it’s everything about you,” said Alexis Dekany, whose ex-boyfriend, an Akron police officer, pleaded guilty to stalking her. “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.”
The officer ran searches on her male friends, students from a course he taught and others, prosecutors said.
Misuse represents a tiny fraction of the millions of daily database queries run legitimately during police encounters. But the violations abuse systems that supply vital information on criminal suspects and law-abiding citizens alike. And incomplete, inconsistent tracking of the problem frustrates efforts to document its pervasiveness.
“A lot of people have complicated personal lives and very strong passions,” said Jay Stanley, an American Civil Liberties Union privacy expert. “There’s greed, there’s lust, there’s all the deadly sins. And often, accessing information is a way for people to act on those human emotions.”
The AP tally, from records requested from 50 states and about three dozen of the nation’s largest police departments, is unquestionably an undercount. Some departments didn’t produce records, refused to disclose information, said they don’t track misuse or produced incomplete or unclear data. Some cases go unnoticed because of the difficulty in automatically distinguishing dubious searches from legitimate ones.
The AP’s requests encompassed local databases and the FBI-administered National Crime and Information Center, which catalogues records on, among others, sex offenders, gang members, fugitives and people reported missing. Other statewide systems contain motor vehicle records, birth dates and photos.
Violations frequently arise from romantic pursuits or domestic entanglements. A Denver officer searched the phone number of a hospital employee he met during a sex-assault investigation and called her. Misuse sometimes reflects personal squabbles. A North Olmsted, Ohio, officer admitted looking up a friend’s landlord and showing up to demand the return of money he said she was owed.
Deb Roschen, a former commissioner in Wabasha County, Minnesota, alleged in a lawsuit that law enforcement and government employees inappropriately ran searches on her and other politicians over 10 years. The searches were retaliatory after she raised questions about county spending and sheriff’s programs, she said.
An appeals court dismissed her suit. But, she said, “Twenty years from now… I’m still going to be thinking about it. The sense of being vulnerable, there’s no fix to that.”
The AP focused on officers who accessed information about others but also counted some cases in which they divulged information without authorization, or ran themselves for personal purposes. The tally also includes some cases where little is known about the offense, because some agencies provided no details about the violations except that they resulted in discipline. It wasn’t always clear if database misuse was the sole basis for punishment.
The AP sought to exclude benign violations. But record-keeping variations made that challenging.
California agencies, for instance, reported more than 75 suspensions, resignations and terminations between 2013 and 2015 arising from misuse of the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System. But the records didn’t specify the allegations.
Officers are only occasionally prosecuted, though one recent case involved retired New York Police Department sergeant Ronald Buell, who admitted selling NCIC information to a private investigator.
Law enforcement officials have taken steps to try to limit abuse.
The Florida Highway Patrol requires troopers to sign a disclaimer when they access the state’s Driver and Vehicle Information Database. Miami-Dade police do quarterly audits in which officers can be randomly asked to explain searches, said Christopher Carothers, major of the professional compliance bureau.
“The idea that police would betray that trust out of curious entertainment or truly bad intent, that’s very disturbing and unsettling,” Carothers said.
Tucker reported from Washington. AP writer Tom Hays in New York and AP video journalist Joshua Replogle in Akron, Ohio, contributed to this report.