After a woman in Florida experienced a “chance brief encounter” with a police officer in a parking garage last year, authorities say the officer showed up at her parents house in an effort to see her again. The woman then filed a complaint, and the department says it discovered the officer had been misusing a police database to target women to date and have sex with for years.
The officer, 36-year-old Leonel Marines, who had worked for the Bradenton Police Department in Florida for 12 years, used his access to target at least 150 women for romantic encounters, according to police, America's ABC News reports.
An audit of Marines’ searches in the Driver and Vehicle Information Database showed he had made “several hundred questionable database queries of women,” Bradenton Police Chief Melanie Bevan said at a press conference yesterday.
The internal audit indicated that the names Marines was looking up were predominantly names of women, Bevan said, and that he mostly solicited Hispanic women, many of which didn’t speak English.
According to Bevan, the data Marines gleaned from these “questionable” queries wasn’t being used for police work. “Instead, he was using it in a variety of ways via social media, cold telephone calls, visits to their homes under the guise of being there for police business, you name it, to try and get dates with these women,” she said, according to ABC.
Disturbingly, this was not the first time Marines was accused of abusing the database in this way. According to the Bradenton Herald, Marines was previously investigated for misusing criminal justice information in 2012 after allegedly showing up at a woman’s home unprompted on several occasions. After that investigation, he was reportedly suspended for three days without pay.
Bevan said that the department has closed its latest internal investigation, finding Marines in administrative violation of “gross misconduct to include misuse of criminal justice information, violation of our record security policy and sex on duty”. He was reportedly put on administrative leave and resigned in October.
While the internal investigation has now been closed, Bevan said that the FBI is leading a “very active and open criminal investigation”.
Marines would not be alone in abusing a powerful information tool for nefarious means. In 2016, the Associated Press found that law enforcement employees had been fired, suspended or resigned more than 325 times between 2013 and 2015 for misusing databases.
And former Mississippi County, Missouri sheriff Cory Hutcheson was charged for using a phone-tracking service to surveil a judge and police officers, The New York Times reported last year.
And in 2013, the US National Security Agency’s internal watchdog revealed that at least a dozen employees used government surveillance tools to spy on current or former lovers.
When confronted about looking up partners and exes, some NSA employees reportedly claimed they had performed the searches for practice, and one said he did it to ensure his girlfriend wasn’t “involved” with any foreign government officials, among other shady excuses.
The common thread among all of these instances of impermissible surveillance is that the alleged offenders used legitimate systems available to them through their jobs.
There’s a lot of concern and precautionary measures taken to ensure sensitive information isn’t exploited by hackers and third parties. What’s clear with these misuses of data is that it’s just as easy — if not easier — to exploit that data from the inside. All it takes is one enormous surveillance tool and a few bad actors.