Cops criticized for 'misuse' of databases

With just a couple of keystrokes, a cop can go from curiosity to a felony

By Allison Manning
The Columbus Dispatch

Police databases such as the Law Enforcement Automated Database System, or LEADS, are supposed to be used solely for law-enforcement purposes -- running the license plate of a suspicious driver, for example.

But sometimes, like any other trove of information, it's misused. Officers can use the databases like their own Facebook, or worse. In some cases, those trusted with keeping the public safe have used the databases to get revenge.

"We're all taught from the get-go as to what the system is legitimately to be used for and what the ramifications are if you do misuse it," said Lt. Anne Ralston, spokeswoman for the State Highway Patrol.

Since January 2011, the patrol, which oversees LEADS, has received reports of 45 possible violations. Seven were unfounded, and 10 are still under review. Some of the reports appear to involve innocent mistakes, such as a dispatcher helping a caller by giving him information from the system.

Other times, officers use the database to help themselves, such as the police officer in Highland Heights, near Cleveland, who ran the identification number of a Corvette he was buying to find out whether it had been stolen.

Then there are the more malicious cases, including the Cincinnati police officer who was convicted of unauthorized use of a computer, a fifth-degree felony, after looking up a woman's information and stopping her vehicle more than a dozen times. A police officer in Lucas County threw items into the front yard of two people he looked up through LEADS. He resigned and forfeited his peace officer certification to avoid criminal charges.

Criminal cases are rare. Of the 28 violations found in the last year by LEADS, just four were classified as criminal. Three more are pending in Delaware County, where three deputies are charged with unauthorized use after looking up an acquaintance and the wife of a man with whom one of the deputies had a dispute.

In addition to LEADS, officers have access to the Ohio Law Enforcement Gateway System, a Web-based system that provides real-time information about investigations and safety plans across the state. The state attorney general's office has received reports of 192 potential incidents of misuse since the start of 2011. More than 30,000 people statewide have access to the system, with 3.2 million searches performed last year

"Typically, misuse is predominantly curiosity-driven and not malicious," said Dan Tierney, a spokesman for the attorney general's office. He acknowledged that easy access to the system, in cruisers, on smartphones or anywhere else with an Internet connection, can make illegal searches tempting.

Before the prevalence of laptops in cars and Web-based systems, officers would have to call in a license plate or name over the radio. Now, it's as simple as a Google search. And that has made it seem more covert, said Mark Drum, of the Fraternal Order of Police.

"I'm not going to call in my mom's license plate, knowing it's going to go out over the air," he said.

But officers should think of system searches that way. The system tracks who keys in each inquiry.

Agencies also need to make sure their employees are trained, Drum said, to prevent misuse of the database. He said an officer might run his elderly mother's license to see how she's been driving and wouldn't think of that as misuse. But it is.

While there are plenty of groups focused on police brutality or other injustices, few civil-rights groups appear to focus on this more-prevalent form of law-enforcement overreach.

"One of the reasons we're concerned about law enforcement or any other organization keeping databases is that, by collecting the information, it becomes a honey pot for people who are simply curious or have a bone to pick," said Rebecca Jeschke, a spokeswoman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-privacy advocacy group based in San Francisco.

Delaware Police Chief Russ Martin, current president of the Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police, said having these databases at the fingertips of law-enforcement officers is crucial. Taking away the databases won't solve the problems, which are few and far between, he said. Instead, it will put the community at risk if officers don't have the best level of information.

"I understand the concern of the private citizen that the potential to abuse the sharing of information is out there," he said. "We have to, on some measure, trust that police officers are doing the right thing in the field. And when they don't, they should be held accountable."

Copyright 2012 The Columbus Dispatch

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