Denver police officers caught using confidential criminal databases for personal reasons get only light punishments, allowing the potentially dangerous abuse to continue, the city's independent police monitor wrote in a report released Tuesday.
The problem involves the National Crime Information Center, a database used by tens of thousands of law enforcement agencies across the country to catch criminals, recover stolen property and identify terrorism suspects. Authorities legitimately use the database to seek information on stolen guns and cars, fugitives, sex offenders and other subjects.
"I think my responsibility is to look at each one of those incidents on its own merit and make a decision as it relates to that is it something that really requires harsh discipline or it is more corrective action or if it's something in between," said Denver Police Chief Robert White.
Denver Police Department policy warns officers that they can be criminally prosecuted for using the database and its Colorado equivalent for personal reasons. But such abuses continue, in part because the light sanctions aren't enough to deter future misconduct, Independent Monitor Nicholas Mitchell wrote.
Denver7 checked with the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Colorado District and a spokesperson said he couldn't recall any officers being charged with that crime last year. Federal charges are possible for abusing the FBI's database.
Mitchell said 25 officers have been punished for inappropriate use of the databases since 2006. But most of them received reprimands, rather than the harsher penalties some police agencies impose for the same offense. None of the 25 was charged with a crime.
The Denver cases include an officer who looked up the phone number of a female hospital employee with whom he chatted during a sex assault investigation and called her at home against her wishes. Another officer ran a man's license plate seeking information for a friend, who then began driving by the man's house and threatening him, according to the monitor's report.
A third officer who ran a man's license plate number on behalf of a tow truck driver who wanted information for personal reasons received no punishment at all after he told investigators the tow truck driver needed the information as part of her official duties.
According to the 144 page report, the Phoenix Police Department suspends officers without pay if they are caught abusing databases.
It's unclear how widespread the problem is, but the cases show a need for stronger punishment, Mitchell said.