ACLU sues Tacoma police over hidden Stingray records

A man works in August 2014 on a cluster of cellphone antennas atop a small tower over a building near downtown Tacoma.
A man works in August 2014 on a cluster of cellphone antennas atop a small tower over a building near downtown Tacoma. File, 2014

The Tacoma Police Department unlawfully withheld documents last year related to surveillance devices it uses, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.

The organization filed records requests with the city of Tacoma last year for documents related to a device called a Stingray, which police say they use to seek violent felons. The device works by pretending to be a cellphone tower with a strong signal which all nearby phones — not just the target’s — try to connect to.

Tacoma city attorney Elizabeth Pauli said the city is aware of the lawsuit but would not comment.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of four Tacomans: the Rev. Gregory Christopher, the Rev. Arthur Banks, the Rev. Toney Montgomery and Whitney Brady.

Banks, Christopher and Montgomery lead predominately black churches in Tacoma. Christopher is also the president of the Tacoma chapter of the NAACP, and Montgomery is the president of the Tacoma Ministerial Alliance. Brady ran for Tacoma City Council last year on a platform including police accountability.

“I personally want to understand how it’s being used and what safeguards are in place to protect people,” Brady said Thursday. “… It’s not an issue that is isolated to the African-American community. This technology and equipment affects everyone that is in a radius that the equipment can reach.”

According to the ACLU lawsuit, many documents the organization sought were heavily blacked out or withheld altogether, a move the ACLU says is a violation of the state’s Public Records Act.

The lawsuit asks the court to order the documents’ release and to award attorney fees and $100 for each day the records have been withheld for each of the four plaintiffs.

ACLU attorney La Rond Baker said ACLU of Washington has pursued police accountability measures throughout the state. Baker said the black community is disproportionately affected by police activities, and thus has a special stake in the debate over Stingray.

“Each of (the plaintiffs) has a long history of wanting to improve police interactions, primarily with the black community,” Baker said. “They share the same concerns we did regarding the scope of (police) surveillance.”

Baker said the city misused exemptions in state records law to withhold documents. Police withheld or redacted documents under an exemption related to specific intelligence information or attorney-client privilege.

“We also believe there were documents that must exist that are currently unaccounted for,” Baker said. “Those include communications between Tacoma Police Department employees who operated the Stingray for outside entities.”

The ACLU also asked for documents that it says the city is required to produce under a law signed last year that, in part, ensures police do not retain data from those who are not the targets of police surveillance.

Christopher said the Tacoma Police Department needs to “come clean” with its use of high-tech surveillance devices.

“If there had been some transparency in the genesis of getting this device, we wouldn’t be here,” Christopher said.

In 2014, an investigation by The News Tribune revealed that the police had used the device, also called a cell site simulator, hundreds of times since 2009. Though members of the Tacoma City Council were briefed on the purchase of the equipment, some said they were not told the full capabilities of the technology when they approved money for an upgrade to the Stingray in 2013. That council resolution said the device was to help police find and prevent detonations from improvised explosive devices.

Later, police said they had never used the cell site simulator to find improvised explosive devices.

Police said they had always sought the permission of judges to use the Stingray. But Pierce County Superior Court judges told this newspaper that they were not aware that police were using the orders to deploy a Stingray.

In 2015, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a state law requiring police to require police to seek a warrant from judges whenever they deploy a cell site simulator — and to inform judges about the kind of technology they intended to use. The law also says police must discard data from people who are not the target of a police investigation. Tacoma police say the device does not store any data.

Seattle group Center for Open Policing filed a lawsuit against the Tacoma Police Department in September for refusing to disclose similar documents related to the Stingray.

Olympia gadfly and public records litigator Arthur West filed a similar lawsuit the following month.

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542, @KateReports