40 Futures is a speculative fiction series about the criminal justice system.
Sheriff squanders sensitive data to save budget
Edensville– After an unexpectedly lively county council meeting last night, council members are left looking for answers and the sheriff is on the ropes.
A routine presentation of county department audit results at last night’s Union County Council meeting unearthed a previously unreported contract between the county sheriff’s office and a technology company that was costing the department millions of dollars. That is, before the sheriff traded away the county’s data.
In a quid pro quo deal, the data was traded for lower payments to LightForce, LLC, a law enforcement technology company. This included “all data processed by LightForce,” according to the renegotiated contract. Going beyond publicly accessible information, like arrest records, the trade included data not accessible under public records law, like arrested people’s medical histories, information about children and confidential informants, and extensive human resources data about department employees.
Insult to injury, Sheriff Richard Kelly, who was present for the meeting, indicated that his department did not tell the people identified in the data that it would be sold. It is unclear what legal authority, if any, the sheriff’s office had to make such a trade.
“You gave away our citizen’s data, sensitive data,” said councilman Manny Lopez-Garcia to Kelly. “That wasn’t yours to trade!”
Last night’s scene unfolded when County Auditor Darlene Hicks presented her routine audits for three departments, including the Sheriff's. Council members’ attention was piqued in the whitewashed room at the county courthouse when Hicks began to explain that, for years, budget overruns in the sheriff’s department were due to deputy overtime pay and a contract with LightForce.
While there was little articulated concern about the overtime costs, Council Chairwoman Helen Garland latched on to the aggressive repayment terms the sheriff’s office originally agreed to six years ago. When the Chairwoman pressed Hicks on whether or not these terms were normal, Hicks responded that she had never seen such aggressive terms in her 17 years with the county.
“That’s an awfully reckless way to play with taxpayer money during a recession,” Garland said. “We’ve been responding to crime in this country for a over century without computers, I don’t see why that needs to change now.”
The Union Gazette obtained a copy of the original contract, which included terms for new computers in every department squad car in the county, a cloud-based records management system, improved cybersecurity measures, software that automated federal and state data reporting requirements, and a new suite of services to manage the human resources department. The contract also included software that automatically made transcripts of bodycam evidence. The Union County Sheriff’s Department does not currently deploy body cameras.
Sheriff Kelly said that the costs were justified for the sake of public safety.
“The ultimate goal of this contract was to improve public safety through a more efficient use of taxpayer dollars with the aid of technology,” said Kelly. “Before this contract, we were mostly paper-based, except what state and federal law required to be digital.”
While the contract at issue has cost the county millions of dollars over the past six years, the most up-to-date FBI crime statistics for Union County indicate that property crime is up in the past two years and violent crime has held steady at historic lows.
Kelly noted that when the contract was signed the Sheriff’s Department was bringing in significant revenue through a controversial tactic called asset forfeiture, which has been banned in some states. It wasn’t until the recession began and tax revenue dried up that Kelly needed to shrink the department’s overhead, including its payments to LightForce.
“Through back-and-forth negotiations, the aggressive payment terms were done away with, saving the department over $250,000 in the first year alone while still allowing the department to modernize,” said Kelly.
“Sheriff, you’ve been in this community a long time,” started Councilwoman Cecily Anders, who was just reelected to an unprecedented eighth term on the council, “and you know people come here because they want to be left alone, raise their families, and tend to their land. They don’t want to be bothered by technology companies—I know I don’t.”
Last night's meeting sparked council plans to further investigate the Sheriff’s Department’s contracting processes and the deal with LightForce. It seems that yesterday’s events might also have political implications.
When reached for comment, Darryl Bryson, the union president which represents sheriff’s deputies, was outraged.
“The law is clear that a [law enforcement officer’s] discipline information is private information in our state, and here it is being bought and sold by our very own sheriff,” he barked over the phone while out-of-state on vacation. “As far as I’m concerned, if Sheriff Kelly can’t uphold the law in his own office and protect our deputies, then it’s time for a new sheriff to come to town.”
Kelly is up for reelection in November.
Links from the podcast commentary
How private contractors are taking over data in the public domain. (Reveal)
Trade secret privilege is bad for criminal justice. (ABA Journal)
Exporting repression? China's artificial intelligence push into Africa (discussing how local governments trade data with Chinese companies for better contracts). (Council on Foreign Relations)