Novi police dispatcher Marc Pieknik uses CLEMIS, a database serving about 124 departments in Oakland, Washtenaw, Macomb, Wayne and Genesee counties, plus the FBI. (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)
Pontiac— Police agencies throughout Michigan are increasingly compiling and sharing even the most mundane information about suspects — and everyday citizens.
As budgets tighten, police are joining consortiums to manage records and reports that, in most cases, are public but time consuming to access. The state is taking over a mid-Michigan network and plans a dramatic expansion that soon will allow officers from Detroit to the Upper Peninsula to view other agencies’ reports from their squad cars.
Vast amounts of personal information — culled from everyday contact with police, from car crashes, noise complaints and broken taillights — can be stored indefinitely along with personal data such as cellphone numbers. Few laws govern the flow of information, which privacy advocates say is an invitation for abuse.
“We are keeping information on everyone now: Not just people suspected of wrongdoing, but people who reported crimes and may be victims,” said Allie Bohm, a national policy strategist for the Americans Civil Liberties Union. “That’s particularly troublesome.”
The debate comes amid ongoing controversy over National Security Agency eavesdropping of cellular and Internet data. Michigan police officials argue that scandal is inflaming discussion over innovative, cost-saving networks that help catch crooks.
“Criminals don’t keep themselves in one geographic area — one of the things police are trying to do is exchange information to keep the public safe,” said Bob Stevenson, a former Livonia police chief and executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.
Michigan already has about 60 networks statewide that typically charge fees to access software that allows police officers to write reports, view mug shots, check for warrants and more. Oakland County operates the largest such network, but soon will have competition from the state of Michigan.
The State Police late last year acquired Saginaw County’s Area Records Management System that serves 1,200 officers in 10 counties. Detroit is expected to buy into it this year, along with agencies from northern Michigan. Within five years, nearly 1 in 3 officers in Michigan, about 6,000 total, will be hooked into the system.
Macomb County, meanwhile, is building its own $2 million record-sharing system.
Privacy advocates worry that rules governing the networks are set and enforced entirely by police. Unlike the state’s free Law Enforcement Information Network that contains warrants and such, it is not a felony for police to misuse the other networks because laws don’t extend to them.
“It doesn’t work when the government says ‘trust us,’ ” said Dan Korobkim, deputy legal director of the ACLU of Michigan. “There needs to be checks and balances and civilian oversight, audits and rules that are enforced by independent entities.”
'Cadillac' of databases
Korobkim and other critics — including a few Michigan lawmakers — couldn’t cite specific abuses of any of the systems.
The ACLU is launching an investigation into Oakland County’s Courts Law Enforcement Management Information System, and may introduce legislation this year to regulate it and others.
Jamie Hess, manager of CLEMIS, said police can access records only if they have “legitimate law enforcement purposes,” such as a traffic stop or criminal investigation. He said individual violators face discipline, while departments that break the rules could be kicked out of the agency.
No one can remember that happening in the agency’s 46-year history, Hess said. Other than accident reports, the data and reports aren’t sold to private parties.
“There can be some talk about what we’re doing and concerns about it being bad or misused, but there is encouragement now at the federal level for everybody to share data and try to help in the efforts by public safety and law enforcement,” Hess said.
“The last thing you want to do is see a system misused.”
CLEMIS is the oldest consortium in Michigan, serving about 124 departments in Oakland, Washtenaw, Macomb, Wayne and Genesee counties as well as the FBI and other federal agencies, according to the most recent information available.
It’s the “Cadillac” of police databases because it contains so much information and functions, said Michigan State Police 1st Lt. Alan Renz, who is overseeing the state’s acquisition of the Saginaw County system.
CLEMIS allows 1,800 officers to access, from their cars, databases that contain more than 36 million identifiers, including aliases, juvenile records, Social Security numbers, vehicle identification numbers, license plates, addresses, gun registration and other personal information. The majority — but not all — are public records.
The agency is governed by a board of participating agencies, but its meetings are closed to the public. A Detroit News reporter was barred from attending a January meeting. When the newspaper protested, a lawyer for the county argued CLEMIS’ board isn’t a public body and is exempt from the Open Meetings Act.
Hess and CLEMIS’ chief, Jeffrey Werner, said they haven’t heard any complaints about the system. The network only stores records that police otherwise could acquire by making phone calls or driving to neighboring departments, Werner said.
“If a report was made, it was made and it’s on file,” Werner said. “The purpose is to provide that information to law enforcement so they can do their jobs better.”
The group’s semi-regular newsletter often features stories about crimes solved because officers spotted trends in neighboring communities. Saginaw County has seen similar success, said Kevin Stevens, a lieutenant in that county’s sheriff’s office.
“Instead of sharing information verbally in a detectives meeting once a week, officers now can see what’s happening,” said Stevens.
He and Hess said there are numerous safeguards. Unlike the system the state is acquiring, officers using CLEMIS can only see bare-bones information in other departments’ reports, rather than detailed accounts of incidents known as narratives.
Access also can be limited and police can redact information before placing it in the system, Hess said.
“It’s always a balancing act,” said Stevenson, of the police chiefs group. “There are legitimate concerns that police are aware of. That’s why we don’t give out information to people willy-nilly.”
Protecting data from abuse
State Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, said he plans to introduce legislation by this summer to make it a felony to use CLEMIS or other systems for personal use. Doing so would simply extend the restrictions that already exist on the state’s LEIN system, McMillin said.
“It’s keeping data on citizens and we ought to know what kind of data it is, who gets access to it, how it’s protected,” he said. “We just need to be very transparent when we’re dealing with these databases.”
For several weeks, he and state Rep. Rose Mary Robinson, D-Detroit, have hosted public meetings about government surveillance and privacy. They say theymay bring the operators of CLEMIS before a state hearing and demand more information about how it manages public records.
The only criminal case involving CLEMIS was against Leon Walker, an Oakland County information technology employee. He was charged with attempting to hack into the system in 2010 during a breakup with his wife. The case was dismissed the day it was expected to go to trial in 2012.
Walker denied trying to break into the system. But the case also uncovered the absence of laws about CLEMIS, said Walker’s attorney, Leon Weiss. He said he was shocked by what he learned about the system.
“A couple of guys told me the cops use it all the time for personal reasons,” said Weiss. “I’m not saying it’s like the NSA and stuff they are doing globally, but for our area, I believe they are definitely playing fast and loose with the Constitution.”
Hess denied that, saying anyone found abusing the system would be barred from it. He said it’s up to individual departments to discipline violators. There’s a similar self-reporting approach in the system the State Police is acquiring from Saginaw County, said Robert B. Phelps, who is managing the network for the state.
“Sanctions would result if an agency didn’t want to clean their own house,” said Phelps, a retired Saginaw County sheriff’s captain.
The debate has intensified as more agencies are sharing data or looking to do so.
Greg Wandrei, vice president of the Troy-based New World Systems, said the federal government has expanded grants to encourage data-sharing among police after federal agencies were criticized for not sharing information that might have prevented the 2001 terror attacks. New World Systems, a 400-employee company, is one of the country’s leading private police technology suppliers, selling software to agencies in 46 states.
The networks will likely expand in coming years, Hess said: “You talk about Warren seeing (records from) Farmington Hills? How about Warren seeing Austin, Texas?”
This year, the Macomb County Sheriff’s Department is leaving CLEMIS and going with New World Systems along with Sterling Heights and Clinton Township, Sheriff Anthony Wickersham said. Federal grants are paying much of the cost for the $2.2 million system.
The system will cost the county $150,000 per year, about what it now pays into CLEMIS. It’ll be housed in the county’s communications and operations center that opened in December in Mount Clemens and integrates the county’s roads, emergency management and police and fire dispatch operations.
In December, the Michigan State Police finalized plans to purchase Saginaw County’s system with a $3.6 million grant from the state. The system, which will now be called the Statewide Records Management System, has 56 agencies throughout the area on board, said Stevens, the Saginaw County lieutenant.
“Gov. Snyder continues to support collaboration and resource sharing among jurisdictions to improve efficiency and reduce costs, and the state is making investments to help with these efforts,” said David Murray, a spokesman for Snyder.
Stevens said the Detroit Police Department, which declined to join CLEMIS last year, is expected to join SRMS as soon as this summer, adding another 2,400 officers to the system. The current cost is $267 a year per sworn officer.
A Detroit police spokesman would only say negotiations with the state are ongoing, but this week, state officials announced the city is receiving a $753,300 state grant to join SRMS.
Costs for the state system would fall to $200 per officer if it follows through on plans to quadruple the number of officers it serves within five years, from 1,500 now to 6,000, Renz said.
“The goal is to get everybody on one system as best as we can. It’s the data sharing we get from that. We can work at preventing crimes ahead of time.”