Friday, March 14, 2014

Is Tempe PD planning to use cell phone data to identify participants at an anti-racist rally?

According to local media, the Tempe Police Department are preparing for a potential clash between a group of white supremacists who have announced a "White Man March" on Mill Avenue on Saturday, and a counter-demonstration organized by local anarchists and anti-racists, including residents of the surrounding neighborhood.

The TPD has a less than stellar history when it comes to dealing with protests. With that in mind, we want to put a spotlight on a secretive tool in the arsenal of the Tempe cops, one that can easily be used for spying on demonstrators in real time by using something almost everyone carries with them these days: a cell phone. The question is, will the TPD use it -- and what will be the implications for civil liberties if they do?

The Tempe Police Department's history of political repression through intimidation, electronic tracking, and surveilling of activists, radicals, anarchists, and participants in Occupy Phoenix, has been documented here at Down & Drought (and also quite extensively by journalist Beau Hodai, and by the anarchists themselves (1,2)), and includes using anti-terror cops to spy on gardeners and deploying mobile surveillance to gawk at tailgaters.

Knowing this historical context, and considering statements from TPD about their preparation for Saturday's protests,  we decided to do a little to research on the use of technology for the purpose of remote electronic surveillance. This led us to the Stingray, a device being discreetly used by law enforcement agencies across the United States to covertly collect data.

The Stingray is known as an “IMSI catcher”, meaning that the device records the International Mobile Subscriber Identity of a particular wireless device, such as a cell phone.  According to documents obtained by The Wall Street Journal,  the "Stingray works by mimicking a cellphone tower, getting a phone to connect to it and measuring signals from the phone. It lets the stingray operator 'ping,' or send a signal to, a phone and locate it as long as it is powered on."

The Stingray has the ability to connect to all cell phones within a mile of the device, without police having to contact a wireless service provider, by collecting data on the identification and location of all phone communications within range, and then forwarding the signal on to the nearest cell phone tower.  Among the data collected by the Stingray include all outgoing numbers dialed for phone calls and text messages, and the identification for a phone which can be used to obtain call and text history.  As the Stingray is usually mounted in a police vehicle, it can stay mobile and, due to the lack of familiarity the public has with the device, would be difficult to identify.

A handful of valley police departments admitted that they use the device in an Arizona Republic article, among them Phoenix, Mesa, and Gilbert departments. These devices are generally purchased with grant funds made available by the Department of Homeland Security.  According to the Republic, a number of valley police departments refused to acknowledge the use of the Stingray device, including the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, which denied any knowledge of the Stingray device. 

In a similar instance, journalists in Sacramento researching the use of the Stingray in the region were told by the the Sacramento County Sheriff's Office that the department had no knowledge of owning or using the Stingray.  When confronted with documents from other departments, including a purchase order from Sacramento County, which confirmed that the Sacramento County Sheriff's Office did own a Stingray and related technology, the department never fessed up to owning a Stingray, instead telling the journalists that their "legal counsel is coordinating a response" to the inquiry.

The Stingray is a product of the Harris Corporation, a company which specializes in high tech surveillance technology, and made the Stingray a sought after device for law enforcement after years of developing the technology for the US military. Harris Corporation refuses to answer reporters' questions about the Stingray and related products, telling them to ask the police agencies about the device, which would be great if Harris Corporation wasn't also requiring departments to sign non-disclosure agreements upon purchase. This is the case with one of the notable local departments absent from the Republic's article, the Tempe Police Department, who paid Harris Corporation $60,321.75 for a Stingray package in October 2012.

The contract, which the Public Intelligence project downloaded and hosts on their site, was removed from the City of Tempe's website in the weeks after the purchase.  The removal of the contract, between the Harris Corporation and the City of Tempe, was likely due to the non-disclosure agreement that Tempe probably violated by posting the document to the city's website. A subsequent request for an additional purchase from Harris Corporation to not exceed $123,497.50 was approved by the Tempe City Council at their August 22, 2013 meeting.  Naturally, the details of the recent purchase by the Tempe Police Department from Harris Corporation are not available to the public.

The use of nondisclosure agreements between the government and private industry to hide the acquisition of spy equipment with very serious civil liberties implications is troubling, to say the least! Why doesn't the city want its residents to know about this technology?  As noted in the USA Today expose on the Stingray, there is a concern that the device could be used to identify the participants of a rally or protest for a political cause.  

As we have previously noted in our article on the Facial Recognition Unit of the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center (ACTIC), local law enforcement have repeatedly used tools that were purchased under the pretext of "fighting crime", but were actually used to spy on the participants in protests and activist events, many of whom had never been accused or convicted of a crime.

So what does this mean for the future of protest in Tempe, or any town where the cops have a Stingray?  It likely means that anyone carrying a cell phone could have their identity placed at the scene by police, despite any other precautions (such as wearing a mask to conceal the face).  With the lengthy history of the Tempe PD's Homeland Defense Unit's efforts to stifle free speech and assembly, and the coordination between valley Terrorism Liason Officers (TLO) to identify radicals and anarchists in the valley, it seems quite likely that the Stingray could be discreetly deployed at this weekend's anti-fascist counter-protest to the "White Man March."

And if you think the Tempe Police Department using the Stingray on Saturday to collect the identities of people protesting a white supremacist march (or just anyone on Mill Ave who may get lumped in) is without precedent, think again.  In 2003, the Miami-Dade Police Department purchased a Stingray in anticipation of protests aimed at the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) conference.  The department claimed the device was needed to monitor protests, and the "anticipated criminal activities" which they claimed would be organized by cell phone. Following the FTAA protests, the City of Miami, the Miami Police Department, and its officers, faced a number of lawsuits concerning the level of violence and brutality used by police against demonstrators, as well as complaints over the use of surveillance to target journalists for arrest.

With concerns over the use of the Stingray, and the Tempe PD's history of repression towards protest groups, we reached out to Sgt Michael Pooley, the Press Information Officer at Tempe.  We asked Sgt Pooley for comment on the use of the Stringray by the Tempe Police in regards to the possible "White Man March" and counter-demonstration this weekend. We also asked about any past use of the Stingray by police at protests, and if the department has any concerns over the privacy concerns of anyone ensnared in the department's data collection.  As of the time this article was published, there has been no response from Sgt Pooley, continuing the silence from Tempe on what appears to be a serious attack on civil liberty.

Monday, March 10, 2014

True Detectives: Branding PPD'S Major Offenders Bureau

Thanks to the popularity of the HBO show, "True Detective," Americans are pretty familiar with the concept of the Easter Egg, the inside joke or hidden message buried within the larger story. The recent media coverage of the killing of Detective Hobbs also contains just such a buried theme: the coming out party for the Phoenix Police Department's Major Offenders Bureau (MOB) and the return of the police apparatus of political repression. But we'll get to that in a minute.

What words would you use to describe the local media's coverage of police shootings? Comprehensive? Surely not. Critical? Hardly. Dismal? Getting warmer. Ass-kissing? Yeah, that's more on the money.

Let's start with this because it's kind of a metaphor for the general failures of Valley media to critically cover police shootings. AzCentral's map of officer-involved shootings in the Valley leaves a lot to be desired. By our count Monday's two shootings by Phoenix PD brings the number of times Valley cops have opened-fire on residents to at least 12 (note, by the time of publication and on the day of Hobbs' funeral, DPS had shot another man in Tempe). Their map lists six. Absent from their map, for instance, is a man shot by Glendale PD's fugitive task force in February. Also missing is the shooting of Juan Nino by a US Marshall in front of the Food City on 48th St. and Southern. Updating the map seems to be a low priority for them.

Missing a few killings, but what's a few
shootings between friends? (Via AzCentral)

And, if following police shootings wasn't your thing, you'd be hard-pressed, given any of the coverage of the two shootings -- one of which involved the death of an officer -- to know that cops in the Greater Phoenix Area are on another one of their epic shooting sprees. In fact, just hours before the shootout involving Detective Hobbs and his partner, Detective Casados, police opened fire on alleged burglars fleeing a break in at a gun shop. In 2012, there were 47 shootings involving cops, and according to AzCentral themselves, by November 2013 the cops were already safely in record territory with 50, with a grand total of zero charges filed against any officers.

That's a heck of a record. The system works, right?

And despite what you might think based on the recent wave of effusive praise emanating from editorial boards and Twitter accounts since the most recent shooting, policing is not a terribly dangerous job. In fact, despite the assertions in a recent editorial from the Arizona Republic that plays more than a little loose with the facts (opting for an 11-year average rather than the decades-long downward trend), officers killed by gunfire nationwide is at its lowest since 1887. More officers are killed in traffic accidents.


In fact, overall deaths on the job among law enforcement is at its lowest since 1959, and that includes the car wrecks. The fact that they work in a profession that requires a lot of driving and yet still rate a safer profession that truck driver says a great deal about the amount of risk that officers really take. So, as policing has gotten safer, and threats to officers have declined, cops have been shooting more people.

Also noticeably missing from the coverage is any kind of critical analysis. When the shooting happened, the media eagerly jumped on the pro-cop band wagon, instantly transforming into direct advocates for officers. Channel 12 made a sign for people to write their condolences on and placed it at the memorial, making sure to tweet it out for the PR points. Channel 3 organized a telethon with the 100 Club of Arizona, a group that supports law enforcement.

Meanwhile, reporters made sure to tag @PhoenixPolice in their tweets, as if seeking approval from the authorities. What other kind of news event warrants this level of unquestioning fealty to the official story as delineated by the authorities? When else is journalism suspended in a similar way? Certainly not for the victims of police violence, where reporters are always careful to get "both sides of the story." Meanwhile, the trend of rising shootings of civilians by police shows every sign of continuing. But we at Down and Drought couldn't find a single article about the Hobbs shooting that even mentioned it, something that occurs to us as crucial to contextualizing a situation like this. Certainly it would be hard to argue that it's not relevant.

Local media seem to be some kind of competition to outdo each other in heaping praise on the police, both specifically and in general. KTVK Channel 3 reporter Natalie Brand has obsessively covered the shooting death of officer, writing over 50 consecutive tweets in response to the officer's death and subsequent publicity and public relations events organized by PPD. While a clear standout, Brand's behavior is in line with that of her colleagues, who tweet photo after photo of the memorial and dutifully praise the police who, despite scandal after scandal, are immediately transformed into saints the moment one of them is shot or killed.

We here at Down and Drought understand the desire not to speak ill of the dead. But it doesn't take a deep understanding of the history of Valley police misconduct to feel betrayed as news consumers by the coverage that follows police shootings. Consider the example of the recent expose of Mesa PD's antics in their so-called "Fun House," and the department's expressed desire to purge employee records that would include complaints. We have to wonder when exactly criticism will take place if the records are purged and media are active partisans for the boys in blue when they are at their most violent. In this context of disappearing information, treating slain cops as heroes by default seems questionable at best, and certainly bad journalism.

Indeed, just a cursory Google search of Detective John Hobbs turned up several interesting tidbits. For instance, an October 2000 article in the Arizona Republic reports that Hobbs was involved in a fatal accident with a pedestrian. According to the piece, Hobbs was off duty and driving at around 10:30 at night when he ran over Burdice Monson, who was walking along an I10 entrance ramp after his car broke down. The Republic story says no alcohol test was administered to Hobbs, though police said despite this that they didn't believe drinking was involved in the accident.

A search of Maricopa Superior Court records revealed (CV1998-001445) what appears to be a lawsuit involving Hobbs in which he was defended by the city. It resulted in $6328.10 payout to the plaintiff. Unfortunately, we don't have the resources as humble bloggers to research this further but we'd sure like to know what it was about.

Further research revealed a court document detailing an encounter that resulted in the imprisonment of a man who confronted Hobbs on a stakeout. Hobbs was in plain clothes in an unmarked car. Haidar Muhsin al Bazony, eventually convicted of aggravated assault in the incident, was responding to a call from his wife who was concerned about men lingering outside her townhouse.

Bazony, armed with a handgun and backed up by a friend he recruited to aid him, approached the car, peering inside. The document in question, an appeal, disputes the timing of the encounter as described by the state. The appeal claims that Hobbs pointed his gun at Bazony first not the other way around. Each testified in court that the other had aimed their weapons first. According to the appeal, the timing was critical to the conviction. Keep in mind that Hobbs wasn't dressed in a uniform and wasn't in a marked vehicle. The request was denied and Bazony was sentenced to the absolute minimum by the court.

Meanwhile, a simple internet search on Hobbs's partner, Albert Casados, returns an excessive force complaint made in 2011 against Casados. The document further alleges denial of medial aid. Parsing the legalese, it appears that the court found sufficient cause to allow the charges to move ahead against Casados. Again, we don't have the resources to pursue this further, and we couldn't find any additional information about it on the internet. Another casual internet search turned up another instance in which Casados fired his weapon on the job, in this case killing Ricky Campillo Ramirez, who police said had a knife.

The point in bringing these cases and allegations forward is to show that there is ample reason for skepticism when considering the actions of both officers, and also to warrant holding off on the parades and beatification of the officers as automatic heroes merely because of the job they do. A March 7 Arizona Republic article on the Major Offenders Bureau (MOB), the division for which Hobbs and Casados worked, is practically a hagiography for the unit. The article, which serves as a coming out party of sorts for MOB, fails to mention that the MOB doesn't just go after the “worst of the worst.” The suspension of the media's critical role in this case, however, has rubbed off onto coverage of MOB, which has made it possible for the PPD to present this unit to the public without criticism.

But the media's reporting on MOB doesn't cover the whole story. As emails released to the Center for Media and Democracy detail, MOB was also heavily involved in the repression of Occupy Phoenix, despite the total lack of felonious or violent activity on the part of occupiers. Sgt. Saul Ayala, a member of MOB was dispatched by his superiors to infiltrate Occupy Phoenix, where he advocated violence, perhaps hoping to provoke the very actions the MOB publicly claims to police. Ayala got his orders from another MOB member, Career Criminal Squad Sgt. Tom Van Dorn.

Sgt. Saul Ayala (right) poses with an occupier in a photo from his phony Facebook page

Just last month Down and Drought uncovered a Facebook post by Van Dorn joking about wanting to pull over parents selling Girl Scout cookies in his new beat, the poor and heavily Latino, Estrella Mountain Precinct. As we said, the response to the killing of Officer Hobbs is at least understandable (although not excusable), but just why such lack of critical reporting should also apply to MOB in general isn't clear. Natalie Brand tweeted that the PPD's press conference "made me cry," making us wonder, are the media being played by PPD?

We here at Down and Drought, even with our limited tools, routinely uncover examples of police racism and misconduct. Surely the media, with its vastly greater resources, can do more. Just in the last year we uncovered officers' racist tweets and Facebook posts, and we delved into the police surveillance and infiltration of Occupy Phoenix (while the media almost entirely ignored the revival of the political repressive functions of the police). And when stories about police violence have broken, we contextualize them, as we did in the case of a Phoenix Police Lieutenant accused of domestic violence (another epidemic of police violence that reporters refuse to connect). Why this is impossible for local media completely baffles us. Are local reporters too cozy with the cops?

Second chances are only for cops
It's worth noting that the media had no problem reporting on the target of the Hobbs/Casados raid that day, William Thornton. To the media, the civilian's record was fair game, but not the officers. The Republic's Lauri Roberts went so far as to declare that Thorton had been given too many second chances. This piece came on the heals of another she authored ordering us to support the boys in blue. Thornton's past is deemed sufficient justification for his shooting, but past allegations and suspicions abut the two officers is off limits. Cops get as many chances as they need. Reporters like Brand got on the internet more than 50 times to tweet praise for officers but couldn't be troubled to visit Google once and report on what she found. In the case of shootings by police, especially when an officer is wounded or killed, the past is irrelevant. Off limits, even.

The local media may be enamored of the police, seeing them as defenders of order and all things good. But many Phoenicians live in a completely different world. One in which the police act a lot differently than they do at press conferences. When reporters purge their critical faculties with regard to the police, and operate instead as the megaphone boosting and bolstering the cops' public image, they don't just do us a disservice, they discredit their own trade.  Even more so in cases of deadly force. And in this situation, the collective media suspension of disbelief has allowed PPD to pass off a unit that poses a serious threat to civil liberties instead as a thin blue line protecting civilization from violent thugs. In the era of mass protest and increasing alienation from the political system, the importance of that shouldn't be lost on anyone.