Las Vegas Sun

May 30, 2024

Metro admits to improper release of criminal history data

Experts say unauthorized access by 12 employees raises privacy, integrity concerns

Face to Face: Abuse of Power?

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Sheriff Doug Gillespie

Sheriff Doug Gillespie

At least 12 Metro employees have been found since 2005 to be improperly accessing and disseminating criminal history information for reasons unrelated to police work, according to a Metro filing in a recent lawsuit.

Given Metro’s roughly 6,000 employees, that means one in 500, or 0.2 percent, have been caught improperly accessing and disseminating the information.

Civil libertarians said this raises privacy concerns and questions about the integrity of the department.

“I’m not suggesting there are bad intentions on the part of Metro’s leadership, but 12 breaches of that policy are definitely problematic,” said Gary Peck, former head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada. “One would hope they would take it seriously,” he said.

The revelation in the court document stems from a lawsuit filed against Metro by Stephen Quinn, who claims that police and Department of Motor Vehicles information about him and associates was sought by the son of former Gov. Kenny Guinn in an apparent effort to try to discredit him.

Quinn, a contractor, was in a business dispute with the son, Jeff Guinn.

In court papers, Quinn charged that Guinn hired private detective James Thomas, a former Metro officer, who in turn obtained information on Quinn and dozens of his associates through his “contacts within Metro who continuously and systematically gave him access to confidential and proprietary information of citizens of the state of Nevada without their knowledge or consent.”

Quinn’s lawsuit against Thomas alleges defamation and invasion of privacy; his lawsuit against Metro alleges the department violated his civil rights.

Metro, in a motion for summary judgment this month, argued it can’t be held responsible for the unauthorized action of an employee who was violating department policy when he provided information to Thomas for the investigation of Quinn.

“LVMPD makes thousands of queries into SCOPE every day and since 2005, only 12 employees have been sustained for improperly accessing and disseminating (criminal history information),” Metro said. SCOPE is a law enforcement database.

A separate but related lawsuit Quinn filed against retired Metro Officer Paul Osuch and current Officer Kai Degner raises questions about the integrity of Metro’s own internal affairs unit.

Osuch was discovered to be the Metro officer giving information to private investigator Thomas about Quinn after Dana Gentry, executive producer of “Face to Face With Jon Ralston,” made inquiries with the department.

Gentry’s reporting revealed the dissemination of information by Metro on Quinn and many of his associates; they were not criminal suspects.

Sheriff Doug Gillespie acknowledged this year that a “ridiculous” number of database searches had been conducted on Quinn and his associates.

Osuch retired before he could be interviewed about the matter by Metro.

Not only were Metro Police acknowledged to have been helping feed information on behalf of Guinn, but the investigation into that leak was conducted by a detective, Kai Degner, who himself invested with Guinn.

Guinn faces reams of litigation with current and former investors who accuse him of self-dealing and bilking them; Guinn denies the allegations and has often countersued.

An additional internal affairs investigation faulted Degner for not disclosing his financial relationship with Guinn. He has since been knocked back to patrol and is awaiting possible discipline.

In an appearance this month on “Face to Face,” Gillespie, the sheriff, sought to reassure the public that he takes these issues seriously.

“We take that dissemination of information seriously. That’s a ... suspension on your first offense,” he said.

Gillespie said improper access of criminal databases poses not just privacy concerns but also carries significant risk for Metro, as the FBI controls the data and could limit Metro’s access to it if the bureau believes the information is not being used responsibly.

The sheriff said the vast majority of his employees behave properly.

“A lot of people have access to this data,” he said. “Overall I believe the majority of our employees adhere to the letter of the law and our policies.”

This is the second time in recent weeks that Southern Nevada residents have been confronted with news that public institutions have violated privacy protocols.

The release by Metro officers of private information to unauthorized recipients resembles the dissemination of confidential patient information at University Medical Center, which has triggered an FBI investigation into violation of patient privacy laws.

Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel of the ACLU of Nevada, credited Gillespie for being forthright about the obvious problems related to improper use of police tools and the original flawed internal affairs investigation, but suggested Gillespie may not have complete institutional control of his department.

“Here is the concern, and to his credit, Gillespie didn’t try to cover it up. He admitted it was a problem. But he did not, and maybe cannot, give assurances that there are the mechanisms in place to prevent this type of thing from happening in the future. That’s what was missing.”

Andrea Beckman, executive director of the Citizen Review Board, which monitors Metro, said, “I can understand the concern, and I would have that concern as a private citizen. But in my experience with Metro, running (background checks) outside your purview as an officer makes you subject to termination, and it should be because it’s a violation of public trust.”

This seemed to contradict Gillespie’s statement that improper use of police databases is sanctioned with a suspension.

Metro Sgt. John Loretto said the department wouldn’t comment on ongoing litigation or the discipline imposed on the 12 employees caught improperly obtaining and disseminating personal information.

Loretto said department policy dictates that the first offense would result in an eight- to 32-hour suspension; the second offense a 40-hour suspension; the third offense a 40-hour suspension or termination; and the fourth offense termination. The acts could be so egregious, however, that they could rise to a higher level of punishment on first or second offense, he said.

William Sousa, a UNLV criminologist and expert in policing, said there isn’t much data about the improper use of intelligence-gathering by police and said it’s difficult to say whether this constitutes a systemic problem within Metro.

In an e-mail, Sousa wrote, “Most investigations of police misconduct (via academic studies or official government commissions) indicate that misconduct is generally limited to minor acts by a few members of the organization acting individually or in small groups (e.g., the ‘rotten apples’ phenomenon).”

Sousa added that when problems are allowed to fester, they can spread.

“The hypothesis, however, is that if these ‘rotten apples’ are not dealt with, more ‘apples’ within the organization could become ‘spoiled’ (e.g., the ‘rotten barrels’ phenomenon).”

Sousa said there are common attributes of departments, such as the modern New York City Police Department — though not its historical ancestors — that are known for their integrity.

He pointed to “dedicated resources to professional standards and integrity units,” meaning strong internal affairs units. “It’s mostly anecdotal. But those that rate high in terms of degree of integrity have strong professional standards units but also their organizational culture has a low tolerance for unethical behavior,” he said.

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