When Sleuthing Turns to Snooping

At a time of nationwide furor over allegations of deadly police violence against African-Americans, law enforcement officers have now come under scrutiny for a much lesser, but nevertheless disturbing phenomenon — misuse of confidential databases.

An investigation conducted by the Associated Press revealed hundreds of cases of police who searched law enforcement databases for their own personal reasons, to pursue personal vendettas, profit by selling information to interested parties, or just idle curiosity about neighbors or media celebrities.

To be sure, the matter has to be seen in context. In the vast majority of cases, the police use the databases responsibly in the course of the difficult and dangerous job of safeguarding our communities, for which are grateful.

Law officers have legitimate access to the digital files, to run routine checks on drivers at traffic stops or in the course of a criminal investigation. Besides state and city databases, FBI’s National Crime and Information Center processes some 14 million queries from law agencies every day. Police use them to call up a driver’s records, identify wanted criminals, immigration violators, gang members, and individuals reported missing. There is no question that they have long been a poweful tool of law enforcement.

The AP stressed that “the misuse represents only a tiny fraction of the millions of daily database queries.” But it also noted that there is no comprehensive recordkeeping of these infractions, and no one knows how many there are.

Police departments have no way to ascertain, either in advance or after the fact, whether a given query is really in the course of duty or not, whether it’s legitimate sleuthing or illegal snooping. Cases have come to light mostly through complaints made by the victims of data misuse.

The illegality of it is serious too. It’s not a trifling indiscretion. Courts have yet to determine whether improper database access is a federal crime. But beyond a strictly legal definition, there is no question that such a practice is a betrayal of the trust that the public puts in the people who are hired to enforce the law. They are granted special access to the databases in order to serve the citizenry, not to prey upon them.

In some states, the problem has been recognized and steps have been taken to prevent abuse and punish offenders. The Minnesota Department of Public Safety said it changed the way officers access a state driver database after a 2013 audit found over half of the 11,000 law enforcement personnel who use it made searches that appeared questionable.

Florida this year increased the amount of field audits law enforcement agencies must undergo regarding Driver and Vehicle Information Database (DAVID) usage. Troopers in the Florida Highway Patrol sign a criminal sanctions acknowledgment when they log in to the system. Officers in Florida are sometimes randomly asked to justify their searches.

California reported more than 75 suspensions, resignations and terminations between 2013 and 2015 in connection with violations of the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System.

In Colorado, Indiana and Florida, hundreds of violations occurred, but specificity about the nature of the violations and the subsequent punishment, if any, were not available.

To date, however, punishments for these infractions have been light, mostly in the form of reprimands. Nicholas E. Mitchell, of the Denver Office of the Independent Monitor, a civilian oversight agency, says that it’s not enough.

“These databases contain vast amounts of personal information about the American public … When they are misused, reprimands are not commensurate with the seriousness of that violation, and may not be strong enough to deter future abuse.”

That the authority to enter a citizen’s private files is necessary for effective policework is not at question. But it must be impressed on every police recruit that just as unjustified arrest or physical abuse is a criminal matter, so is the invasion of privacy.

Many may not even perceive it as a crime, as the line between legitimate searches and personal spying is so easily crossed and so hard to verify. Nor is there any tangible damage; it’s all in cyberspace, and in most cases the victim is completely unaware of a crime committed against him.

The user warnings and audits are certainly in order; they help to remind officers of the legal parameters of their job. But for those cautions to be taken seriously, there has to be a culture of respect for confidentiality. At present, it is apparent that among all too many police officers — and most abusers go unnoticed and unpunished — there is a scofflaw mentality.

Law enforcement agencies have to develop a better system for educating recruits, to find more effective means to ferret out the offenders, and to go harder on those who are caught, especially in cases of multiple violations.

Official action will serve to reassure the public that the powers granted them are wielded responsibly, at a time when many Americans have become cynical about police attitudes toward the sanctity of life, let alone the sanctity of privacy.