Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Look away

To safeguard privacy rights, reduce the number of public employees who can search citizens’ records

Criminal databases have improved the speed and efficiency of law enforcement investigations in Ohio. Yet the growing number of public employees with access to such information has led to abuses of privacy. Such access needs to be limited, and discipline for violations needs to increase.

A records clerk for the Lucas County Sheriff’s Department faces a criminal charge of abusing the state’s Law Enforcement Automated Database System (LEADS). The database includes state and national data on parole status, warrants, criminal histories, missing persons, driving records, driver’s license images, vehicle ownership, and stolen property.

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Sheriff John Tharp says he fired the employee because she used LEADS to make background checks for “no reason.” She was reprimanded in 2002 for the same offense, and suspended for a month without pay in 2011 for running the names of fellow employees through the database.

Former sheriff James Telb said this week that the 2011 incident was not a felony, and that LEADS agreed to let her face internal discipline by his department. LEADS is administered by the Ohio State Highway Patrol.

Abuse of LEADS can lead to denial of an agency’s access to the database, which is rare, and firing of the offender. Nearly 35,000 employees in about 2,000 law enforcement agencies across the state have access to the network.

Similarly, more than 26,000 law enforcement employees in Ohio and parts of Pennsylvania have access to the Ohio Law Enforcement Gateway (OHLEG) administered by the state attorney general’s office. OHLEG permits searches of archived evidence, criminal histories, protection orders, and information about missing children and gangs.

Even taking duplication into account, it appears that too many people are exposed to the temptation to roam through the private details of citizens’ lives. An advisory committee recently proposed severely limiting access to OHLEG, after it was revealed that the state is using new facial recognition technology. Attorney General Mike DeWine has promised to adopt the panel’s recommendations.

Giving 35,000 people access to LEADS might not seem excessive in a state with 11.5 million residents. But instant technology greatly multiples the ability to root through records and do damage.

It’s time for Columbus to look beyond efficiencies and say: Wait a minute.

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