California’s law enforcement agencies hit record numbers of instances of misusing the state’s database network in 2016, according to an analysis of state data by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
The California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (CLETS) is an information-sharing system that allows law enforcement officers to check DMV records, criminal records, gun registration information, missing persons files, a stolen vehicle system and dozens of other types of records in California, Oregon, and nationally.
In 2016, agencies in California reported 159 investigations into alleged misuse of databases, a 14.5% increase over the state’s 2015 figures, and a 50% increase over 2011. Scandal-plagued Oakland self-reported 17 cases of database misconduct—the highest number for any California agency in at least 7 years, according to EFF. Police have been found to use CLETS to stalk ex-lovers and spouses, screen dates, to get leverage in a custody battle, and worse. These numbers are only the tip of the iceberg, however, as many local law enforcement agencies—including the Los Angeles Police Department—fail to report their misuse data.
The CLETS Advisory Committee (CAC) was established by the state legislature many years ago to oversee CLETS. The 11 members of CAC are tasked with enacting policies and serving as a disciplinary committee. According to EFF, the majority of CAC members are “appointed by special interest groups that lobby for law enforcement and municipalities.” The result is a committee that is more inclined to back, rather than discipline, law enforcement officers. In addition, the group has a history of pushing through policies requested by police groups.
Agencies that use CLETS are technically required to provide CAC with disclosures about database violations that are investigated. The agencies are supposed to turn in a yearly summary of their misuse statistics.
But CAC hasn’t taken any action with regard to the database abuse. The committee hasn’t even looked at the data in years, according to EFF. CAC has reportedly never taken action against an individual or department.
CAC’s lenience has apparently left agencies without a sense of urgency or importance regarding their disclosures. A number of the state’s largest law enforcement agencies do not turn in the required data.
And many of the law enforcement agencies that do complete their paperwork, often list misconduct investigations as “pending,” and then fail to provide a follow-up on the investigations’ results.
Last year was the first year that Oakland turned in any disclosures at all, at least since EFF has been tracking the data. The timely disclosures may have something to do with a massive sex scandal that came to light last year.
Several Oakland PD officers enmeshed in the scandal were accused of misusing law enforcement databases for personal gain. (Read more about the sex scandal, which involved a minor, and more than a dozen Northern California officers: here and here.)
Of Oakland’s 17 disclosures, only one officer was found to have definitively misused CLETS. The other 16 are still pending.
The Oakland PD is one of the largest police agencies in the state. The much smaller Yuba County Probation Department has a history of database mishandling. In 2015, Yuba reported 15 cases, all of which resulted in “counseling” for the offending officers. And in past years, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Office has been the agency that conducts the most CLETS violation investigations. This year, however, the sheriff’s office failed to file their disclosures with CAC.
EFF has been following this issue for years, and called for improvements to data tracking and oversight to catch the officers who abuse the system.
A bill making its way through legislature, SB 54, would, among other changes, limit federal government agencies’ ability to use California’s law enforcement databases—including CLETS—in order to carry out immigration enforcement. Unfortunately, EFF points out, the bill was amended to authorize immigration officials to access criminal history data through CLETS, creating a “backdoor to the very data the bill was designed to protect.” Despite its shortcomings, EFF supports the bill (and notable law enforcement groups oppose it) and its intended purpose of safeguarding California residents’ sensitive data.