California police abuse state databases with impunity – report

California police abuse state databases with impunity – report
Law enforcement agencies in California set new records in 2016 for the misuse of statewide records databases despite lax reporting requirements for database abuse cases and little independent investigative oversight of such privacy violations.

New data on official misuse of the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (CLETS) –  which gives policing agencies access to a variety of statewide and federal records – show that 2016 was a banner year for police discipline associated with CLETS abuse, according to an analysis by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

A total of 159 investigations of CLETS misuse occurred in 2016, a 14.5 percent increase from 2015 and a 50 percent jump from 2011. Of the 2016 total, 117 investigations ended in conclusions that police had abused the system. Nearly 40 more cases were listed as pending without final conclusion.

Offending officers either resigned or were fired in 27 cases, three cases yielded a felony conviction, while another three resulted in misdemeanor convictions.

Officers were not punished in 24 of the confirmed cases. Offenders in 28 cases only received "counseling" while officers in 21 other cases were punished in ways only classified as "other," the EFF said.

In addition, with 17 cases of confirmed abuse, the Oakland Police Department set a new one-year record in 2016 for most CLETS-related discipline of officers or staff within an individual policing agency, the EFF reported.

The EFF pointed out that the CLETS has been abused by officers in the past to stalk ex-partners and leak records on witnesses to the family of a convicted murderer, among other cases.

Yet, as the EFF noted, the record-breaking 2016 statistics are only the "tip of a very large, blue iceberg" involving CLETS abuse and the weak standards in place to enforce compliance.

The CLETS Advisory Committee, the body tasked with oversight of database misconduct, has taken "a largely hands-off approach to discipline," requiring individual departments to investigate those who are found to misuse the CLETS, the EFF said. Stocked with law enforcement and municipal representatives, the advisory committee requires disclosure from individual departments about such investigations and then decides if further discipline is warranted.

The advisory committee, however, "has not even looked at the misuse data in years," the EFF reported, and has thus taken no action against any department or individual in that time.

Furthermore, policing agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department, have not been required to file any information, period, about CLETS misuse, the EFF said.

Last year marked the seventh year in a row the LAPD, the state's largest municipal law enforcement agency, filed no misuse disclosure data.

Departments that do file information on violations are allowed to report investigations as "pending" and are not required to follow-up with how or if the investigation was resolved, the EFF reported.

A current bill pending in the California Legislature would limit access to the CLETS for federal immigration enforcement, though powerful police lobbies are opposed to the legislation, S.B. 54.