Sheriff's office abruptly halts use of police database, concerned about ICE access

Agency determined that federal immigration officials can access the records within it, raising concern that participation in the system would violate a “sanctuary county” law

By Lewis Kamb
The Seattle Times

KING COUNTY, Wash. — The King County Sheriff’s Office has stopped using a key crime-fighting database after determining that federal immigration officials can access the records within it, raising concerns that deputies’ participation in the information-sharing system would violate a “sanctuary county” law passed last year.

The decision last week to cancel the department’s membership with the Law Enforcement Information Exchange — the free police-records database known as LinX that’s used to help solve cases ranging from thefts to homicides — comes after the sheriff’s agency reviewed its information-sharing following a critical county audit last month.

“After the audit, Sheriff (Mitzi) Johanknecht directed that we review our practices to make sure we didn’t have any other unintended data-sharing issues in violation of the code,” Undersheriff Scott Somers said Tuesday. “And this is one that popped up.”

Detectives routinely contribute police reports and run queries in Northwest LinX — the regional system that’s part of a national patchwork of law-enforcement records-sharing databases administered by the U.S. Navy. Investigators use the system multiple times each day to identify suspects and criminal patterns across hundreds of jurisdictions throughout the nation, Somers said.

But U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents across the country also have access to the system, Somers said. And that raised concerns about whether the Sheriff’s Office was complying with a county code adopted last year and a long-running department policy that prohibits deputies from voluntarily sharing personal information to federal immigration authorities for civil immigration enforcement.

“Before terminating our participation, we worked with LinX and the Western Washington Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent in Charge to try to develop firewalls between criminal and civil immigration functions within ICE,” sheriff’s spokesman Ryan Abbott said in an email Tuesday. “We could not reach a solution that insured that the civil immigration functions would not have access to KCSO information, especially when viewed from a national level.”

In turn, the Sheriff’s Office terminated its LinX membership last week “out of an abundance of caution,” Abbott said.

“This included the removal of all of our information from their system,” Abbott said. “Agency access to LinX was cut off per the agreement.”

The agency’s abrupt termination from using the system, first reported by KIRO Radio, could have widespread implications, Somers acknowledged. Police agencies across the region have relied on records shared in the system by the Sheriff’s Office to help fight crime in their jurisdictions.

“The sheriff is independently elected,” he said. “She’s got to follow the legislation that the council enacts. I think she took reasonable steps to make sure she was in compliance with that code and with last month’s audit.”

Somers added both he and Johanknecht are “supportive of not using police resources to do immigration enforcement.”

Last month, the King County Auditor issued a report finding that ICE had accessed an online King County jail database more than 1,000 times, despite the county law passed in February 2018 that prohibited the county from sharing with federal officials personal information for immigration purposes without a judicial warrant. The audit also found that the Sheriff’s Office gave ICE two dozen unredacted case files between January 2018 and May 2019.

The audit report didn’t reference Sheriff’s Office participation with LinX, however.

In an Aug. 15 email notifying deputies about the decision, Somers apologized for terminating the agreement but described the move as “necessary.”

“I know that this is going to impact our ability to efficiently access information for conducting investigations and support other functions,” the email said. “We have started discussions with other Law Enforcement agencies about tying records systems together in a regional system to support inquiries. We will listen to your ideas on how to mitigate the impacts.”

Still, some deputies are questioning whether Johanknecht should have proactively terminated the network membership without first trying to address the matter with Metropolitan King County Council members and Executive Dow Constantine, according to a sheriff’s employee who asked not to be identified and who is not authorized to speak to the media.

“All of a sudden, our detectives are trying to get into LinX, and they’re getting thrown out,” the employee said. “Now, they’re wondering why can’t we just tweak this (ordinance) a little bit so that we’re allowed to solve homicides and crime? But the new sheriff apparently doesn’t have a relationship with the executive or the council yet.”

A spokesman for Constantine said in an email Tuesday the executive had no involvement or discussions with Johanknecht about terminating the agreement. A spokeswoman for Council Chair Rod Dembowski referred questions to Council Member Larry Gossett’s office, which responded late Tuesday that it only had learned about the matter late last week.

“(I) t was brought to our attention late Friday,” Cindy Domingo, Gossett’s chief of staff, said in an email. “Gossett is in the process of setting a (meeting) up with the sheriff to discuss options.”

©2019 The Seattle Times

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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