A 2011 Tacoma Police Department grant application shows that regional law enforcement have used controversial cellphone surveillance technology two years earlier than previously thought.
The News Tribune reported in August that the Tacoma police had purchased a device known as a cell site simulator in 2008 and began using it in 2009. Tacoma was the first law enforcement agency in the state to admit to having the device, but it apparently was not the first to have such technology.
Law enforcement agencies in the Puget Sound region began using a cell site simulator – called a Stingray in some instances – in 2007, according to Tacoma’s grant application requesting money to upgrade its equipment.
The News Tribune received a copy of the nine-page grant application this week after filing a public records request for it in August.
Assistant Police Chief Kathy McAlpine confirmed Thursday that Tacoma and other police agencies had access to a cell site simulator before TPD received its system, and that simulator belonged to a different law enforcement agency.
She would not say which agency had the device.
“The technology has been around longer than we’ve owned ours,” McAlpine said.
Technology experts say police can use a Stingray to track a cellphone signal to find a subject’s location, who he communicates with, for how long and how often. The device does this by pretending to be a cellphone tower with a strong signal, which compels nearby cellphones to connect with it.
It pinpoints a suspect by scanning all cellphones in an area – including those of people who police are not seeking.
Tacoma police say they do not collect data with the device, but won’t provide any further explanation because of a nondisclosure agreement TPD has with the Federal Bureau of Investigations.
Records show Tacoma’s device may have been used to capture accused murderers, rapists, kidnappers and drug runners.
In the 2011 grant application, Tacoma police sought an upgrade called an “enhanced exploitation technology investment” for its cell site simulator. The grant application resulted in an award of $188,814, which the police used to buy a $251,752 upgrade for its Stingray, called Hailstorm, in 2013 to keep up with cellphone technology.
The City Council approved the purchase last year after being privately briefed by police officials about the device. Publicly, Tacoma Police Chief Donald Ramsdell described the device as a tool that would help the department find improvised explosive devices.
Police have since said they have never used the cell site simulator to find IEDs.
The 2011 grant application mentions the device’s explosion-prevention capabilities but says “this capability is not the sole intended purpose of the technology device.” The application says police also use the device to find criminal suspects, adding that Tacoma police had successfully deployed a cellphone surveillance device for four years and more than 190 times “with great success.”
“These investigations involved individuals who are considered some of the most heinous,” the application states.
Since 2009, the Tacoma Police Department has used its device at the request of other law enforcement agencies, including the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, Lakewood, Kitsap County, King County and others.