Bad Cop Blotter

The DEA Is Monitoring Your Phone Calls

By Lucy Steigerwald

Photo via Flickr user Sam Stokes

On Sunday, the New York Times revealed the existence of a program known as the Hemisphere Project, which gives the Drug Enforcement Administration and local law enforcement agencies around the country access to a database of Americans’ phone records that goes back to 1987. You might think that a judge would have to sign off on a subpoena in order for the cops to view your phone records, but the process is actually much more streamlined (and invasive): the federal government reportedly pays AT&T to have the telecom giant’s employees sit next to DEA agents and local police detectives and show them whatever data they need. Technically, the information is stored by AT&T and not the government (this avoids some sticky legal issues), but in practice the cops have access to a database that logs billions of calls a day and includes not only who you called, but where you were when you placed the call. (Your call gets logged if it passes through an AT&T-owned system; you don’t have to be a customer of the company for them to have your data.) The current official Obama administration excuse for the program they were forced to admit the existence of is that it helps track down drug dealers and other criminals who tend to use difficult-to-track disposable cellphones.

This story comes on the heels of a story published by Reuters last month that detailed the NSA´s quasi-legal habit of passing on tips to other agencies, like the DEA, that don’t normally work on national security-related cases. After being given these tips, investigators then “recreate” where they got their evidence in a trick known as “parallel construction,” which allows them to hide where they got their information from defendants, judges, and even prosecutors. (Members of Congress have been pressing Attorney General Eric Holder about this, and he claims this is a common tactic used to protect sources.)

All these revelations about the scope of the information the DEA has access to are frightening, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Although the government originally claimed that it would only use its massive powers of data collection and surveillance in serious, rare, 24-type situations, of course they are using these same powers to go after more mundane criminals. For instance, “sneak and peek” warrants, which allow the police to search your property without informing you as they normally would, were legalized by the terrorism-centric PATRIOT Act but somehow wound up being used more often in drug investigations. This sort of codependent relationship between the war on drugs and the national security state makes it difficult to separate the two. It’s becoming clear that it's unrealistic to ask the government to play by the rules law enforcement is supposed to be following except in situations where big bad terrorists are involved; mission creep is inevitable. More than one tentacle of government needs to be hacked off before Americans get some privacy back.

Now on to this week´s bad cops:

- On Friday, several police groups responded in writing to the Department of Justice memo announcing that the laws legalizing marijuana in Colorado and Washington state will be more or less respected. Their letter—signed by the Major County Sheriffs’ Association, the National Sheriffs’ Association, the Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Narcotic Officers Associations’ Coalition, the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association, and the Police Executive Research Forum—claims that the DOJ has made cops’ jobs “infinitely harder” and repeats old cliches about marijuana being a dangerous “gateway drug” that “can also be directly tied to violent crime.” Someone needs to introduce these officers to the good folks at Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, who could teach them a thing or two about why cops should welcome the end of the drug war as much as anyone else.

- The Altoona, Pennsylvania, police department is being sued by a man who says one of their officers shot him for holding a pair of boxer shorts back in April. According to the lawsuit, James D. Weyant was walking back from his girlfriend´s house at 4 AM clad in an oversized hoodie and loose-fitting Guitar Hero-theme boxers that he had to hold up with one hand. Natually enough, when he needed both hands to light a cigarette he decided to take off his boxers so he wouldn’t need to keep holding the dang things up. (He says the hoodie covered his indecent bits.) That’s when officer Mark Sprouse drove up and shot him, allegedly without even issuing any warnings to the 46-year-old. The district attorney claims that Sprouse thought the boxers Weyant was carrying were a gun, and a review board concluded that the cop had “followed departmental policies and procedures.”

- In what the Dallas Observer dubbed “the lamest federal raid in history,” Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) came after a leather retailer named Teskey´s Saddle Shop on Wednesday, shutting down the store’s locations in Fort Worth and Weatherford, Texas, for a day. Rumors that the shops were involved in drug dealing or human trafficking circulated, but it turns out that what brought the Feds was their discovery that Teskey’s was selling leather belts that didn’t have a label identifying where they were made, a violation of customs law.

- A Bronx, New York, district attorney indicted officer Michael Ackermann on Monday on multiple counts, including three felonies, stemming from his arrest of New York Times photographer Robert Stolarik last year. Stolarik got arrested for interfering with the arrest of a teenage suspect and Ackermann claimed that the photographer was using a flash to blind the officer—but Stolarik didn’t even have a flash on him. Now it’s the cop, not the photographer, who is facing charges for fabricating official records.

- According to the Associated Press, since 9/11 the NYPD has labeled more than a dozen mosques as terrorist organizations, meaning that anyone who attends worship at one of them could be targeted by an investigation. Predictably, mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly have defended these invasive tactics—which have never led to any mosques actually being charged with anything—while Muslim and civil liberties groups are horrified.

- The family of 18-year-old Israel Hernandez, the graffiti artist who died on August 6 after being tasered by Miami Beach Police, has filed a lawsuit against the police department and the city. Hernandez´s family says officers used excessive force against him, especially considering this was all over a nonviolent misdemeanor charge.

- Last week in Leland, North Carolina, 19-year-old Gabriel Self was arrested for filming officer John Keel cuffing a man suspected of possessing drug paraphernalia. Local police chief Mike James responded admirably: he instituted a department-wide revaluation of policy on how to deal with citizens filming cops, and Keel will be retrained after serving a 28-day unpaid suspension. Self´s initial charges, meanwhile, were dropped. Our Good Cop of the Week award goes to James for teaching his officers not to respond irrationally to people filming them.

Lucy Steigerwald is a freelance writer and photographer. Read her blog here and follow her on Twitter: @lucystag

Previously: The Cops Should Always Be on Camera

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