Secret surveillance weapons don’t belong in police arsenals

Law enforcement ought to be using state-of-the-art digital and communications tools: The more traps for catching crooks, the better. But it shouldn’t shroud its weapons in multiple layers of secrecy.

The Tacoma Police Department has been far too secretive in deploying Stingray, a powerful electronic surveillance and tracking device frequently used in federal investigations.

The technology – broadly known as cell site simulators – could be described as a microcosm of the National Security Agency’s continental-scale data-mining. It tracks cell phones, which normally exchange signals with commercial towers. Stingray diverts those transmissions into the device, allowing police to capture and analyze them.

A common tactic is to pick out the unique serial number of a suspect’s phone out of everyone else’s phones in the area, then locate its – and his – precise location. Investigators have often used Stingrays to nab drug dealers and other felons.

But the technology’s power creates considerable potential for constitutional abuses. Some CSS machines can be used to eavesdrop on non-suspects’ conversations. Police could use the devices to collect and store data from innocent, unsuspecting bystanders. It’s crucial that investigators erase that data.

A police tool shouldn’t be automatically banned because it can be abused. Guns can also be abused; so can low-tech eavesdropping and surveillance devices. But the more potent a weapon is, the tighter the supervision must be. Except in emergencies, judges should be in the loop when a Stingray is deployed.

To some degree, they have been. Investigators have routinely obtained warrants for Stingray operations since the Tacoma police acquired the device six years ago. The problem is, the judges don’t seem to have known what they were signing off on.

Judge Ron Culpepper, who presides over the Pierce County Superior Court, told The News Tribune’s Kate Martin that he’d never seen the Stingray mentioned in warrant applications – and that his fellow judges had never heard of it. That’s not real judicial oversight.

The bigger picture here is that everything about Stingray seems top secret.

The TPD at first wouldn’t acknowledge that they even had one; Martin had to ferret out its existence from city documents. The department got the device from the feds in 2008, but its transfer and use was subject to an FBI non-disclosure agreement. Police Chief Don Ramsdell described it to city staff last year as bomb squad equipment. Some City Council members say they had no clear idea what it really was.

For that matter, the county’s public defenders didn’t seem aware of it – a big opening for tainted evidence.

We get why the nation’s espionage agencies have to keep some of their methods secret, but the TPD is not the CIA. City police must conceal the times, places and targets of their investigations, but they’re dealing with common criminals, not running black ops against hostile governments.

They shouldn’t conceal their investigative tools – especially a tool that casts as wide a net as Stingray.