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EFF Pressure Results in Increased Disclosure of Abuse of California’s Law Enforcement Databases

DEEPLINKS BLOG
March 31, 2016

EFF Pressure Results in Increased Disclosure of Abuse of California’s Law Enforcement Databases

EFF’s efforts to fix holes in oversight of the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (CLETS) are paying off.

New data and records released by California Department of Justice (CADOJ) show a steep increase in the number of agencies disclosing cases of abuse of the state's network of law enforcement databases—a major victory for transparency and law enforcement accountability. 

Last year, EFF identified major failures in how a CADOJ committee charged with overseeing the system—the CLETS Advisory Committee (CAC)—reviews misuse investigations. The body, EFF found, had failed to follow established procedures for disciplining users who break access rules, leading to a 100% increase in reported misuse since 2010. 

EFF is concerned about oversight of CLETS because it provides access to some of the most sensitive personal data of millions of people. CLETS allows California law enforcement agencies access to more than a dozen state databases, including criminal histories and driver records, as well as access to federal databases and Oregon’s law enforcement network. 

Given that ability to access so much private data, local authorities and the CADOJ place restrictions on how and when law enforcement can use CLETS. Violations take many forms. In some cases, police officers have used CLETS data to screen online dates and to stalk former partners. In one incident, an officer allegedly accessed CLETS with the intent of providing a convicted killer’s family with information on witnesses in the case.

On top of the oversight shortcomings, CAC had no idea of the true extent of law enforcement misuse of CLETS. Despite the policies requiring all agencies to hand over information about reported CLETS misuse investigations, the CAC failed to get records from many agencies. In addition, CADOJ, which provides administrative support and legal guidance to CAC, was destroying the original copies of misuse reports once the data had been entered into a spreadsheet. 

The good news is that the number of agencies reporting their misuse investigations to CAC has now increased by 40%. That means we now have the required annual filings from 662 agencies instead of last year’s 467 agencies.

The uptick in compliance, however, is marred by the absence of one of the state’s largest police forces: the Los Angeles Police Department, which has not filed the required reports in several years. 

Unfortunately, the new data reveals an even greater level potential misuse than previously disclosed.

  • 76 agencies reported that they investigated allegations of misuse than in 2015, which is double the number of agencies that reported investigations in 2014. 
  • Agencies opened 161 misuse investigations in 2015, a 35 percent increase over the 120 misuse investigations that were disclosed in 2014. 
  • Of the total investigations into CLETS misuse, agencies reported 107 cases of confirmed misuse in 2015. That means 2/3 of all investigation resulted in conclusive evidence that abuse occurred. Another 49 investigations are still pending. 
  • Four cases in 2015 led to felony charges. That’s a steep increase: there were only six cases rising to felony level abuse in the previous five years combined.
  • The agencies with the most violations were: Yuba County Probation Department (15 violations), the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office (9 violations), and Sacramento County Probation Department (6 violations). The San Diego County Sheriff’s Office launched the most investigations—22 investigations—although the office only disclosed three confirmed cases of misuse.

Another bit of good news: CADOJ has ceased destroying the annual misuse reports once the data had been entered into a spreadsheet. As a result, EFF was able to identify errors in the spreadsheet data, which CADOJ has since corrected.

EFF appreciates the CAC’s efforts to bring greater transparency to CLETS, though the new data highlights one of our core concerns: the body’s failure to take any demonstrable action against agencies that fail to adequately punish misuse.

CLETS policies require that when a violation occurs, the agencies are supposed to report the cases to CAC for review, and CAC has the ability to take action against agencies that do not handle the cases improperly. A review of CAC records show that these violations have never been discussed during meetings, nor has CAC or CADOJ taken any disciplinary measures against agencies.

During CAC’s last meeting in 2015, EFF took the body to task for failing to police misuse, but the body will not meet again until at least April. We have engaged in direct negotiations with CAC and the CADOJ over how CAC conducts its meetings. So far, the agencies have agreed to key transparency measures, however it remains to be seen whether they will begin reviewing misuse cases as required by agency policy.

Because CAC is the sole authority for disciplining agencies for allowing misuse of their systems, it’s time they started taking these violations seriously.

Download the CLETS Misuse 2015 dataset [.xls]

Download copies of the misuse reporting forms [.zip]

Download CLETS Misuse data for 2010 – 2014 [.zip]

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