Bills push for police database

Greg Corradini

University police and other state police departments might have a new resource for solving crimes that lack much evidence.

Bills currently in the State House and Senate are pushing for the creation of a statewide incident-based data system that might make it easier for police to track crime suspects traveling across Minnesota.

Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, is the author of the bill, which promotes the Comprehensive Incident-Based Reporting System.

The data system would allow state police departments to share information on anyone who has come in contact with police.

“Any time there is an incident reported to the police, it will go into the database,” said Holberg, who introduced the bill in the House.

Incidents in the system would also include accusations against people who aren’t formally charged with a crime, she said.

Police officials said reported incidents can act as arrows, which direct investigators with little information on suspects to possible leads about similar statewide crime patterns.

Steve Johnson, deputy police chief for the University Police Department, said the data system could be a helpful tool for law enforcement.

While Holberg believes there is valid law enforcement use for the data system, she is also a skeptic of government’s ability to manage the public’s private data, she said.

“I recognize the need (for this system), but I also feel a strong desire to protect the privacy rights of the average citizen,” Holberg said.

How it works

For example, Holberg said that when someone calls the Lakeville (Minn.) Police Department to report an incident, a file is started for that incident.

The police might not choose to investigate the incident, she said, but the incident is recorded.

Then, information about the incident would be entered into a confidential database only law enforcement can access. After 10 days, the information would become public, unless it were being used in an ongoing investigation, she said.

For ongoing investigations, police would be able to hold confidential data for 120 days before needing to request an extension on it.

“Probably 95 percent of the data put into (the system) will be (public) in 10 days,” Holberg said.

A person could go to any law enforcement agency that is paying to participate in the system and check what data the police have on him or her, Holberg said.

If someone disagrees with the accuracy of the data, that person could challenge it by contacting the police agency that submitted the data to the system.

The police department would have to flag the data in the system while it was being challenged, she said.

There is no process by which people can get data about them erased at this time, she said.

Not the first

If the system goes into effect, it will not be Minnesota’s first statewide incident-based database for police.

In the late 1990s, the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association created and ran a system called the Multiple Jurisdiction Network Organization, said Chaska (Minn.) Police Chief Scott Knight, who was also on the organization’s board.

Knight said the organization was one of the most valuable tools for law enforcement in Minnesota because it was a guide system for police in pursuit of witnesses and suspects.

“There was just enough information for an officer to want to call another department to investigate what that (previous incident) was about,” Knight said.

For example, Johnson said he heard of an incident in which a suspect threw something through a car window. The people inside the car were cut by shattered glass.

The investigators, Johnson said, knew just a little about the suspect. The officers put that small amount of information into the network, Johnson said, and were able to link the suspect to a completely unrelated encounter with police in another county.

“Having a resource like (the Multiple Jurisdiction Network Organization) that connects law enforcement data statewide, helps us connect the dots on criminal activity,” he said.

The old system goes down

The association put the program out of commission in December 2003, Knight said, because it did not have the money or the staff to defend itself against an increase in privacy lawsuits filed against the association.

“The foes of the system called it a secret police database. That’s absolutely false,” Knight said.

Nothing in the database was private or confidential, he said, unless it was under investigation.

But Holberg was a critic of the association’s system, because it wasn’t secure, she said.

She said she knew people who had hacked into the system and looked at confidential data.

Holberg authored this bill, she said, because she wanted to see a new system that was more secure and complied with privacy laws.

She said she hopes the bill passes and believes it will.

“There is a valid law enforcement use of putting all this information together, but they have to do it (by following) the law,” Holberg said.

The difference between the bills

Sen. Wesley Skoglund, DFL-Minneapolis, authored and introduced a companion bill in the state Senate.

But there are differences between the bills.

Holberg said that in her bill, she requested public-safety committees to reconvene at next year’s legislative session to talk about whether the new data system should be used to do employment background checks required by state statute.

The committees would also make recommendations about whether people can erase data from the system and how long the data will be retained.

But people such as Rich Neumeister, a resident lobbyist for privacy and civil liberties, said the accountability standards for the data system need to go further.

Neumeister said he can understand the data system is an important tool for law enforcement.

But the data in the system, he said, will be unverified – raw data that will be fraught with inaccuracies and will need to have some kind of quality control.

Neumeister has several recommendations for enhancing the system’s quality control.

One of those would require law enforcement officials to purge inaccurate and unfounded data from the system within a few business days after it came to their attention.

Currently, there is no time limit on how long disputed data would stay in the system, he said

Neumeister said putting accurate, verifiable and quality data into the system would reduce the mistakes law enforcement officials might make by depending on raw data.

“The bottom line is: For my liberty and for your liberty, there is danger when government collects raw and investigative data that we all know and recognize is based on accusations,” he said.