Denver Police Officers Improperly Access Sensitive Crime Database Because Department Has No Interest In Stopping Them
Massive databases full of personal information are in the hands of law enforcement. There are many legitimate uses for these databases, but like anything containing sensitive information, the temptation to abuse access privileges is omnipresent. This is highly problematic when the violator is a law enforcement officer. Not only does this violate internal policies and local statutes, but it puts sensitive info in the hands of someone who has plenty of power but little apparent interest in wielding it properly.
Officers have run suspect background checks on police review board members, used sensitive databases to screen potential dates, and spy on their ex-wives. So, it's unsurprising that another law enforcement agency has been found to be housing abusers of sensitive databases. [Independent Monitor Nicholas] Mitchell said 25 Denver officers have been punished for inappropriate use of the databases since 2006. Most of them received reprimands rather than the harsher penalties some police agencies impose for the same offense. None of the 25 was charged with a crime. The abuse will continue at the Denver PD unless something changes. Officers are warned that improper access of the NCIC (National Crime Information Center) database may result in criminal charges, but that's obviously not true. The report says that, in the last decade, no officer caught abusing access to the database has received anything more severe than a three-day suspension. It further notes that these officers may not have even received this minimal suspension if it weren't for previous misconduct on the records prior to the improper access violation.
This improper access was used to facilitate activities that could themselves be considered criminal. The Denver cases include an officer who looked up the phone number of a hospital employee with whom he chatted during a sex assault investigation and called at home against her wishes.
Another officer ran a man’s license plate seeking information for a friend, who then began driving by the man’s house and threatening him, according to the monitor’s report. Unsurprisingly, the monitor has suggested the Denver PD immediately institute harsher punishments for improper access. The Denver PD has responded by saying the punishments are harsh. And they are. It can fire officers and bring criminal charges against them for improper access. It just has never done so. I guess a theoretical deterrent is better than no deterrent at all?
And, while 25 officers may seem like a really low number of abusers, the monitor says his office has no idea how widespread this abuse is. The Denver PD never audits its officers' use of the database. It only responds to complaints of possible improper access. Its internal oversight is just as weak as its half-hearted wrist slaps in response to verified abuse.
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