Technological dreams are becoming real world tools in law enforcement. The police officer of 50 years ago wished they had Dick Tracy’s wristwatch radio or host of other crime-fighting gadgets. Developments in technology have made radios, cameras (body worn and cruiser), and license plate readers the standard tools of law enforcement in the 21st century. Perhaps most useful of all are the information systems containing criminal histories, driver’s license data, license plate data, and court records. Officers, with a few keystrokes in their patrol vehicles, can quickly understand whom they have stopped, if they are dangerous, and if they are wanted anywhere. These systems can present serious issues for law enforcement officers. First, the systems are only as good as the data contained. Second, access must be accompanied by stringent use standards governed by the highest levels of professional ethics.
"Records systems are powerful tools in law enforcement. Local, state, and federal officers conduct millions of searches, with a vast majority of these being in support of enforcement activities"
Imagine you are a police officer and you have just pulled a vehicle over. As you approach, you know very little about the driver or any other occupants. Let us say this time you only have a driver and no passengers. You run the driver through your state’s record system and the National Crime Information Center (NCIC). You find no warrants in either system. You cite the driver for speeding and both of you go about your day. However, what would you say if you found out that driver was wanted in two states and that your records check was a false negative because the active warrants or a case disposition had not been entered into the system? Has there been a delay in entering information into other systems? This is happening every day.
The U.S. Department of Justice, through its Bureau of Justice Statistics, published a report titled Survey of State Criminal History Information Systems, covering 2016. While generally positive, the report brings attention to concerning patterns such as entry of final case dispositions into systems, maintenance and entry of warrant files, and time delays in data entry. In many areas, these issues do not represent bad agency practices but rather the limited resources available for support functions like data entry. Regardless, there are ramifications to officer safety when data is not up to date. Efforts to keep data current are paramount.
Ethics of Access
Records systems are powerful tools in law enforcement. Local, state, and federal officers conduct millions of searches, with a vast majority of these being in support of enforcement activities. That said, some officers misuse access to systems. They choose to check out a social connection’s criminal history or find out who the new neighbor is by running a license plate number. Or, they choose to do much worse, by engaging in activities such as stalking or selling information to criminal elements. Access to these systems is an issue of public trust and each misuse violates this trust, not only between the officer and the public, but also between the agency and the public. A simple Google search provides a number of studies and cases from around the world of access misuse.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) publishes a Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Security Policy, which “provides a secure framework of laws, standards, and elements of published and vetted policies for accomplishing the mission across the broad spectrum of the criminal justice and noncriminal justice communities.” All of the above are critical elements in securing information systems and establishing disciplinary procedures when infractions occur. A key element of new officer training and in-service training for veteran officers should review the concepts of systems access, permissible uses, and disciplinary procedures.
Accurate Data and Appropriate Access
IT systems have revolutionized every area of government. This is especially true for law enforcement. Officers can learn a subject’s criminal history, wanted status, and other details in seconds via laptops in their vehicles. This data plays a critical role in both public safety and officer safety. Not only can the officer determine if the contact is wanted somewhere for a crime, they can immediately assess how dangerous the person is. Are they known to be armed? Are they a sex offender outside of their registration area? Or are they just an average citizen who needs to let up on the gas pedal? Without accurate data, the robust systems used by law enforcement everyday are hamstrung. However, these data systems have more than a monetary cost. Agencies must enact policies; conduct training; and enforce laws, rules, and regulations regarding appropriate system access. Officer access to sensitive personal information is a matter of public trust and each time an officer misuses the data they weaken the trust citizens have in their law enforcement officers. This is not tenable, and must be addressed as the serious issue it is. As law enforcement continues to evolve and leverage technology, accuracy of inputs and accountability for access must grow at the same or faster rate.