All across America, police are stockpiling massive amounts of intimate data on people they meet. In most cases they are holding onto the information indefinitely, even though there was no reason for any charges to result from their encounter.
And many of the police departments are keeping the information hidden from the public, making oversight difficult.
Those were some of the findings of a year-long examination of the field contact practices of the nation’s 50 largest police departments, along with some of the top law enforcement agencies in South Carolina. The investigation was conducted by The Post and Courier newspaper of Charleston, South Carolina.
Award-winning journalist Cheryl Chumley reported on the data collection practice in her 2014 book “Police State USA: How Orwell’s Nightmare Is Becoming Our Reality.” She warned that collecting data on Americans who aren’t charged with a crime – or in some cases, even suspected of a crime – flips the Constitution on its head and twists the standard “innocent until proven guilty” into “there is no such thing as innocence.”
“Watering down the Constitution this way sets the stage for the coming generations to see the government as their boss – an entity to not only respect, but fear,” Chumley told WND this week. “The Founding Fathers, on the other hand, wanted a government that was beholden to its citizens – a government that was kept at bay from encroaching on the God-given rights of its citizens by, say, the Second Amendment’s guarantee to bear arms, or the Fourth Amendment’s promise to be safe and secure in private property and possessions.”
For decades, police officers have used field contact cards to document everything from suspicious activity to casual encounters with people on the street, according to The Post and Courier. Today, with the power of computer technology, law enforcement agencies can store large quantities of this type of data indefinitely on anyone who arouses their interest, even if they never end up charging that person with a crime.
The newspaper reported people could find themselves in a field contact database by simply sitting on a public park bench or talking to an officer on the street. Once they are in the database, police agencies can track their movements, habits, associations, job status or even marital status. Furthermore, police in some cities often fail to fully document their reasons for questioning people and putting them in the database, creating worries about Fourth Amendment violations.
There are no national standards that mandate how police may use the information they have gathered or how long they should keep it. Therefore, practices vary widely in police departments around the country, the newspaper found. Some departments try to constrain access to the information, while others share it with outside agencies.
Chumley said the question of who stores the personal data is a critical one.
“Allowing such widespread government collection of data also raises this concern: Who’s keeping the information?” she said. “Who’s the gate guard of all this information? In a constitutional society, such as ours, the people are the owners of government data, because the people are the payers of government salaries, facilities and properties.
“So that leads to two worries: If it’s a government entity that’s in charge of this data, then Americans have to worry about which government entity, and whether it is able to keep it safe from breach – and whether it can be trusted with the contents. But if it’s a government entity that’s in charge of the data, then that means it should be subject to Freedom of Information Act access – at least in part. And what can of worms could that open?”
Part of the controversy in recent years over police practices in Ferguson, Baltimore, New Orleans, New York City and Newark had to do with field contact practices. In Baltimore, for example, federal investigators castigated police for unfairly stopping black people on the streets without legal justification. Similarly, in Newark the Justice Department discovered thousands of cases in which police did not document the reasonable suspicion required to make stops or conduct field interviews.
The perceived unfairness and overreach of the police helped lead to another problem: riots and looting in cities all over the country.
Chumley cautioned against overreacting to urban crime by calling for even more police power.
“It’s just such a slippery slope whenever government does anything in the name of security and ‘for the good of the people,'” Chumley said. “Our country may be facing a wave of crime that’s seemingly pitting black communities against police officers, thanks in part to the Black Lives Matter movement and a complicit media and White House administration, but the way to restore safety is not to give police more power to intrude on the lives of innocent Americans and round up private, personal data.
“Are police officers going to start asking innocent Americans to show their papers, a la Nazi days in Germany, or else face suspicion, detention, arrest and/or prosecution?”
Chumley, a Christian, said the answer to the problem of government intrusion is a fundamental shift in the values of the country back toward God.
“My solution, as pointed out in my latest book, ‘The Devil in DC: Winning Back the Country From the Beast in Washington,’ is not a short-term fix but rather a whole movement that will restore the soul of America – and it’s aligned with putting God back in charge of the country, and setting government to the side, in its proper and subservient role,” Chumley declared.
“We do that – we put God at the helm – and things like data collection and overreaching government become moot because then, the people who lead will do so with virtue and honesty – values that bear the fruits of peace and justice.”