{{featured_button_text}}
More than 1,000 California police accessed background check database for personal use

On June 5, 2013, San Francisco police Sgt. John Haggett was working the 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift in a third-floor office at the city's Hall of Justice.

At 11:48 that morning, someone logged into the department's secure database inside that office and used Haggett's sign-on and password to run a criminal background check on a San Francisco woman through the department's local records.

Within minutes, Haggett's account was used to run a Department of Motor Vehicles check on the same woman, as well as an FBI criminal records check and another background check run through the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, known as CLETS.

Eventually, investigators found Haggett's sign-on had been used to run checks on two other city residents, and that all three of them had something in common: they were tenants renting apartments from Haggett's girlfriend, according to San Francisco Superior Court records.

Haggett, who spent three decades on the police force, was charged with a single misdemeanor count of misusing DMV computer information and retired from the department while the case was pending. He later pleaded guilty and was ordered to pay $150 in restitution.

Haggett, who did not respond to a request for comment, was allowed to keep his pension, which last year paid him $75,613.26, according to the online database TransparentCalifornia.com.

"I felt so violated," said one of the tenants whose name was run through law enforcement computers.

"Did he get away with it? Yes," said the woman, who asked not to be named to preserve her privacy. "It's such a clear-cut thing. You're not allowed to do that."

Haggett is one of more than 1,000 California law enforcement agency workers in the last decade who have been found to have misused the CLETS system or other sensitive databases that are supposed to be accessed only for legitimate investigative purposes.

The allegations against officers around the state run the gamut, according to an investigation from a coalition of news organizations, including McClatchy, and coordinated by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley.

A California Highway Patrol officer was accused of accessing computer files to dig up information on a romantic rival, then allegedly driving out and keying her car.

A West Sacramento police officer pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor count of harassment after being charged with accessing department computers and making "repeated telephone calls" to harass someone at their home.

And a San Jose police officer was charged in a case where prosecutors said he accessed police computers and then wrote phony traffic and parking tickets against two people who had been involved in a lawsuit with him over a motorcycle accident five years earlier.

'It's taken very seriously'

Law enforcement officials say there is little leeway for officers found to have misused computer systems for personal purposes, and that access is controlled using computer identities and passwords that are specific to each officer.

"It's taken very seriously," said former Sacramento Sheriff John McGinness, who fired one deputy for lying about a case where he asked another officer to help him find a friend while on an out-of-town trip.

McGinness also investigated then-Capt. Scott Jones in 2004 over allegations that Jones was using his computer access to run criminal background checks for bail bondsmen in Sacramento.

Jones was cleared of any wrongdoing, but the issue resurfaced during his successful 2010 campaign for sheriff.

Since that time, hundreds of law enforcement officials have faced accusations of misusing computers in various departments, according to statistics compiled by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based non-profit that champions digital privacy rights.

The data is collected by Attorney General Xavier Becerra's office, and figures provided to The Sacramento Bee show that over the last 10 years 1,002 cases of computer database misuse have been confirmed.

In that same time frame, 82 law enforcement agency employees have resigned as a result of such investigations, another 86 were fired and 125 were suspended.

But the filing of criminal charges in such cases is rare.

In the last 10 years, there have been only 40 misdemeanor and 14 felony cases filed, according to data from Becerra's office.

Last year, when 149 cases of misuse were found, only 11 cases were prosecuted statewide, all but one of them misdemeanors, according to the data. In 2017, when 147 cases of misuse were confirmed, only three cases were filed, all misdemeanors.

Such disparity between the number of abuses and the number of prosecutions is not surprising, said Eli B. Silverman, a professor emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and an expert in police reform and police leadership.

Police oversight is "what's demanded by the public or political leaders," Silverman said.

But, he added, "Oversight is generally a stepchild in the tool kit of law enforcement."

Silverman said most responses from law enforcement are that "the system can be improved" or "we're working on it."

"The response fits a pattern," he said. "It's not necessarily nefarious, but it is a defense mechanism."

Agencies are required to make annual reports to the attorney general's office outlining the number of investigations and the outcome.

Last year, the Chula Vista Police Department reported 38 violations stemming from one internal investigation, the highest number in the state. Chula Vista officials did not respond to a request for comment.

The second highest number came in Glendale, which reported 25 violations.

Glendale police Sgt. Daniel Suttles said the violations stemmed from an investigation into an individual found to have made 15 to 25 inappropriate computer searches.

"The department took what we believe to be the appropriate action, in this matter, in the form of a suspension," Suttles wrote in an email.

Investigations at the CHP

At the CHP, 11 investigations took place last year, including three where officers ran license plates through the CLETS system "without a need to know," the agency said.

One officer was fired, and two were suspended.

None of them faced criminal filings.

CHP's 11 investigations ranked only behind the San Diego County Sheriff's Office, which reported 20 investigations, 17 of which were determined to not involve computer misuse, according to data provided by EFF.

The Sacramento County Sheriff's Office reported one CLETS misuse investigation last year that resulted in a suspension, but the department refused a public records act request to release files on the incident.

Records the department agreed to release indicated that since 2014 it has confirmed 12 incidents of computer misuse that resulted in two suspensions and one firing.

The Sacramento Police Department reported two investigations last year, but determined there was no misuse of computers. Records provided by the attorney general's office indicate that from 2014 through 2017 the department confirmed eight cases of computer misuse, which resulted in the resignation of two employees.

But the precise nature of computer misuse among law enforcement officers often remains shrouded in secrecy unless it is spelled out in court files.

The Sacramento County Sheriff's Office and West Sacramento Police Department both declined public records requests for details of misuse cases involving specific employees who had been disciplined, including one who faced criminal charges.

Each agency cited privacy concerns for their officers, and contend that a new police transparency law, SB 1421, that took effect Jan. 1 does not cover such cases. Some law enforcement veterans argue there can be gray areas about when it is permissible to use agency computers without a rock-solid investigative purpose.

McGinness, the former Sacramento sheriff, says deputies can run license plate checks freely.

"Any plate you run on the street is fair game because it may be stolen," he said. "A license plate is on a car specifically to deprive an operator on a public highway of anonymity."

But the attorney general's office has issued detailed instructions to all law enforcement agencies in the state outlining prohibitions on misuse of the CLETS system and saying computers must be used for official business, with employees required to establish both a "right to know" and a "need to know" the information being sought.

In a bulletin issued in April 2018, Becerra's office spelled out some prohibited computer searches, including accessing databases for information on family or friends, providing data to someone else for unauthorized use or looking for records on "high profile individuals in the media."

Even when criminal charges are filed, the most serious punishment generally is a plea to a misdemeanor and a fine, court filings show, and the prosecutions do not always lead to an officer losing their job.

CHP Officer Joelle McChesney was charged in Yolo County in May 2008 with five counts of accessing computers without permission and pleaded no contest eight months later to three misdemeanor counts.

She also was charged in Placer County with identity theft and defacing a vehicle belonging to a woman she was accused of obtaining information about improperly.

McChesney did not respond to a request for comment, but a CHP spokeswoman confirmed

McChesney is still on the job serving in the Sonora area office.

Get local news delivered to your inbox!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

0
1
0
1
1