“Misuse” of Data Accessed by Law Enforcement Network Draws Skimpy Oversight

Friday, November 20, 2015

“The control of information is something the elite always does, particularly in a despotic form of government. Information, knowledge, is power. If you can control information, you can control people.”

Spy novelist Tom Clancy

It’s a little bit late, in the 21st Century, to rein in the ubiquitous collection of data at every turn in society; perhaps the best one can hope for is that the data is not misused.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) took a look at how the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (CLETS), run by the state Department of Justice, is doing in that regard and was not impressed.

The EFF, using the California Public Records Act, found that cases in which data in an investigation was misused doubled in the past five years to a total of 389. Most of the perps were peace officers and more than 20 of the cases resulted in criminal charges being filed.

One example was a Westminster Police Department officer who was fired in 2009 after using CLETS 96 times to get information on 15 people for reasons not related to police activities. He used the information for spying on his ex-wife and former girlfriends, and meeting new women.  

Government Technology, an online publication, says the SmartJustice (pdf) web portal that accesses the data is as easy to master as the Google search engine “and is being used by more than 40 California agencies.” 

Agencies reported receiving 641 complaints, of which at least 586 were investigated. No action was taken in 109 of the 389 cases where misuse was established. Around 17% of the cases ended with counseling for the offense. Thirteen percent of those caught were suspended, 12% were reprimanded, 7% resigned and 7% were terminated.

Those numbers are only a small indication of the problem, since the only incidents included are self-reported by government agencies to the attorney general. And not all agencies deign to file their mandatory annual misuse disclosures. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) didn’t file, and according to EFF, no one seems to care.

The reports that are filed are not kept by the Justice Department. The EFF said they are thrown away and all that remains for review by independent groups are charts compiled by the department.

The CLETS Advisory Committee (CAC) oversees disciplinary issues, but the EFF described a bureaucratic circle jerk that prevents any real oversight. The nine-member committee is dominated by law enforcement personnel and is devoid of civil liberties representation. EFF described the problem thusly:

The Justice department “can’t take action against misuse unless it has been directed to do so by CAC. And CAC can’t recommend an action against misuse unless CADOJ provides the committee with misuse reports. As a result, neither body seems to be addressing the issue.”   

The CLETS network is enormous. It ties together data from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), the California Department of Justice, Oregon, the FBI, the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (NLETS).

–Ken Broder   


To Learn More:

Misuse Rampant, Oversight Lacking at California’s Law Enforcement Network (by Dave Maass, Electronic Frontier Foundation)

California's SmartJustice Mimics Google Search for Cops (by Jessica Hughes, Government Technology)

State Plans to Share License Photos Far and Wide Despite DMV Objection (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

2015 CLETS Strategic Plan (California Department of Justice) (pdf)

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