Police officers have easy access to law enforcement databases filled with confidential information, the kind that won't turn up in a simple Google search: criminal records, driving histories, home addresses, even a person's Social Security numbers and eye color.
The databases are meant as tools to assist in police work, but an unsettling new report from the Associated Press found that officers abuse those databases to learn about and even harass neighbors, journalists, politicians, romantic partners and more. In one case, an Ohio officer used a confidential database to look up information about an ex-girlfriend; the officer later pled guilty to stalking her.
There's no official record accounting for abuse of these databases by officers nationwide, but the AP report found 325 cases of law enforcement officers and employees who were fired, suspended or resigned over issues regarding misusing databases between 2013 and 2015, and more than 250 cases of officers and employees receiving reprimands over similar abuses.
Because millions of searches are run through databases each day, and so many abuses likely go unnoticed, according to the AP, the report's numbers are "unquestionably an undercount."
"If we know the officers in a particular agency have made 10,000 queries in a month, we just have no way to [know] they were for an inappropriate reason unless there's some consequence where someone might complain to us," Carol Gibbs, a database administrator with the Illinois State Police, told the AP.
According to the AP, abuses of the databases "frequently arise from romantic pursuits or domestic entanglements." Such was the case when a Florida Sheriff's deputy met a woman during an investigation, then ran her driver's license and used that information to find and message her on Facebook. In another incident, a Colorado officer met a woman working at a hospital while investigating a sexual assault, then accessed her confidential information to obtain her home phone number and call her.
Other officers used the confidential databases to look up fellow officers, celebrities or even their own family. Donna Watts, a Florida Highway Trooper, alleged in a lawsuit that, following her arrest of a Miami-Dade police officer for speeding, her confidential information was accessed and she was harassed with "prank calls, threatening posts on law enforcement websites and unfamiliar cars that idled near her home," the AP reported.
According to a 2012 report from local Minneapolis newspaper City Pages, Anne Marie Rasmusson, a former police officer, found that over 100 officers from 18 different agencies around the state had accessed her private records a total of 425 times — many, apparently, just wanted to look at her photo.
"There is nothing that I would say about this driver's license photo or any of my previous ones that in any way would deserve the attention that they've gotten," she told City Pages. "I can't begin to understand what people were thinking."
According to Slate, Drew Peterson, a former Illinois police sergeant convicted of murdering his third wife, may have used confidential databases to look up information about his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, before her disappearance. Peterson's attorney claimed that officers often ran the names of friends and family through databases, sometimes just for fun, Slate reported.
"It's personal. It's your address. It's all your information, it's your Social Security number, it's everything about you," Alexis Dekany, the Ohio resident whose ex-boyfriend, a former officer, pled guilty to stalking her, told the AP. "And when they use it for ill purposes to commit crimes against you — to stalk you, to follow you, to harass you ... it just becomes so dangerous."