Karen Peterson

Peterson: Agreement with Feds keeps locals in the dark

The Tacoma Police Department’s arrangement with the feds is so secret, police won’t disclose their nondisclosure agreement.

It’s understandable they won’t disclose the technology behind their Stingray device that monitors cellphone communications to locate suspects. Beyond the technology, we don’t know how long police promised to keep the device a secret or from whom.

But based on all the sharing police have done since News Tribune reporter Kate Martin wrote about the Stingray in August, maybe they could have been more open about it from the start.

At least police could have told the judges granting their so-called pen register orders that they intended to use the controversial device, allowing for some oversight to ensure they were deploying it appropriately.

When Martin first asked about the Stingray, Police Chief Don Ramsdell wouldn’t talk, citing the nondisclosure agreement. Martin requested copies of any related nondisclosure agreements and received one document.

The first page is on letterhead from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It is addressed to Ramsdell and dated Dec. 19, 2012. It says the feds had been advised TPD was seeking to buy “certain wireless collection equipment/technology,” and that TPD must coordinate with the FBI to sign a nondisclosure agreement before the purchase would go through.

The last page of the agreement shows the signatures of a Seattle FBI agent, Ramsdell, three Tacoma police detectives and one sergeant.

The four pages in between are blacked out, save for a line that says “UNCLASSIFIED/LAW ENFORCEMENT SENSITIVE.”

We don’t know what TPD agreed to, but we know the department has gone to extreme lengths to keep its Stingray a secret.

Why should we care?

This is a law enforcement tool with the potential to invade the privacy of innocent bystanders.

Stingray is the model name for a cell-site simulator. Police use the portable device to trick a bad guy’s cellphone into connecting with it. That helps them find the bad guy.

However, the Stingray must connect to every cellphone in the area to find the bad guy’s phone. Those other people don’t know they’re being monitored.

We have no evidence Tacoma police misused their device to spy on innocent people.

But no one has been watching over them, largely because officials didn’t know they had a Stingray. We don’t know what role the nondisclosure agreement played in that secrecy.

The county prosecutor said he didn’t know about the Stingray. County defense attorneys didn’t know. Presumably, they were litigating cases citing evidence gathered using the device.

Maybe the nondisclosure agreement prevented police from telling them.

Several members of the Tacoma City Council in 2007 and 2008 — the years when TPD received its initial federal grant for and obtained the Stingray — say they don’t recall being told about the device.

Some members of the 2013 City Council say they don’t recall being told specifics when TPD came back to ask for money for a Stingray upgrade. (Other council members say they were told the technology helped police find suspects through their cellphones.)

TPD’s written request to the council said the technology was necessary to prevent and recover improvised explosive devices. TPD never used the Stingray to find or recover an IED.

Maybe the nondisclosure agreement prevented police from telling council members more.

Most important, police didn’t tell Pierce County Superior Court judges they were using a Stingray when they asked judges to sign pen register orders.

Ever.

As noted in today’s front-page story, The News Tribune went to court seeking the unsealing of two of the 179 orders police sought before deploying the device. Neither request mentioned the Stingray.

TPD later admitted the department never once told the judges. It was a law enforcement tactical detail the judges didn’t need to know, the spokeswoman said.

TPD recently promised the Superior Court that it will begin disclosing when it plans to use the Stingray.

Maybe the nondisclosure agreement prohibited that sooner.

At first, TPD wouldn’t confirm the Stingray’s existence to our reporter. Two days later, the department sent out a press release saying it had a Stingray. And we told everyone else.

Apparently the nondisclosure agreement didn’t prohibit that disclosure. Or maybe TPD had to get the feds’ permission to tell us.

Maybe the feds don’t care any more. Tacoma police records through June 10 indicate they haven’t deployed the Stingray on behalf of a federal law enforcement agency since they signed the nondisclosure agreement in 2012.

The agreement has served only to keep local investigations secret.

Has the nondisclosure agreement expired? We can’t know.

What we do know is that to get a new piece of crime-fighting equipment a few years back, Tacoma police signed away at least some of their ability to be open with their local constituents and overseers.

But not their responsibility.

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