Police departments’ data sharing raises sanctuary concerns

  • This screenshot shows a slide from a PowerPoint presentation from the state police’s Fusion Center, which details Massachusetts law enforcement’s use of the software COPLINK. This screenshot shows a slide from a PowerPoint presentation from the state police’s Fusion Center, which details Massachusetts law enforcement’s use of the software COPLINK.

  • U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents enter an apartment complex in Dallas, March 6, 2015. AP FILE PHOTO

Published: 5/21/2018 10:31:56 PM

NORTHAMPTON — At a time when some municipalities are seeking to limit their involvement in the deportation of undocumented immigrant residents, newly released documents call into question how data from police departments in so-called “sanctuary cities” may be aiding federal immigration enforcement.

The documents — obtained by the ACLU of Massachusetts and shared with the Gazette — reveal the extent to which local police departments contribute to and use COPLINK, a privately owned data analysis platform that allows law enforcement agencies access to a massive data trove from which they can generate leads by mapping information about a person: their personal connections, addresses, license plate number and other details like suspected “gang membership.”

That data sharing, first reported by the website In Justice Today, raises thorny questions for jurisdictions with “sanctuary” policies — like Northampton and Amherst — that seek to limit cooperation with federal immigration enforcement efforts. That’s because Immigration and Customs Enforcement appears to have direct access to COPLINK.

Internal ICE documents on information sharing show that the agency has access to several COPLINK systems in other states, and the company that now owns COPLINK has promoted its information-sharing services as a powerful tool for federal law enforcement agencies, including ICE.

“Obviously, that raises concerns for jurisdictions wanting to protect immigrants,” Kade Crockford, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts Technology for Liberty Program, said of ICE’s access to COPLINK.

In an email, ICE spokesman John Mohan declined to discuss the agency’s investigative tools and methods, citing operational and security concerns.

Sanctuary policies

Normally, sanctuary policies like those in Northampton and Amherst instruct police to reject so-called “detainer requests” from ICE, and seek to prevent ICE from deputizing local law enforcement. But in the era of Big Data, Crockford said, those policies may be inadequate by themselves.

“Communities that are interested in creating a safe environment for their immigrant communities need to look beyond those two specific areas to closely examine what types of databases and information-sharing systems their police departments are creating or contributing to, and to what extent federal agencies like ICE can access that data,” Crockford said.

Police chiefs in Amherst and Northampton confirmed that their departments upload data to COPLINK, which they said is a powerful information-sharing and investigative tool. Amherst and Northampton feed arrest reports into the system daily, and police departments in both communities contribute offense reports.

Other police departments across Hampshire County also contribute to COPLINK, Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone said.

“One of the problems historically with police departments and information sharing is that we haven’t been good at it,” Kasper said. “To a certain extent, we kind of operated in silos.”

Now, Kasper said, detectives in her department can use COPLINK to keep an eye on other jurisdictions, and can use the software to do everything from creating photo arrays to generating leads in a case.

“They may use it to find additional reports on a person, where maybe they haven’t been charged but they’ve been accused of a crime,” Kasper said.

The data Northampton and Amherst upload to COPLINK is for the most part publicly available, and does not include any details about a person’s immigration status, both chiefs said. Some of the information being shared, though, is not publicly available.

“The stuff they would have access to … specific to our reports, most of it is available through public records requests anyways,” Livingstone said. A small amount of information that wouldn’t be publicly available on arrest reports — such as a suspected motive for a crime — is also included, Livingstone added.

Those details raise concerns for privacy advocates, however, who say police notes in those reports — whether true or merely speculation — could become the basis for ICE to seek deportation against an immigrant. What’s more, collecting information on those not charged with any crime raises the specter of overpolicing, critics say.

Gang affiliation

Crockford, of the ACLU, gave the example of someone being labeled as gang-affiliated in a police report. Those few words may put an immigrant on ICE’s radar or make them a higher priority for deportation, she said, even if local police aren’t confident about that person’s gang connections.

“There’s no consistent standard for what that actually means. It’s not a legal term,” Crockford said of labeling somebody a gang member. “Frankly, police departments should stop making those allegations in reports that will be shared with ICE… They’re merely allegations of association and that’s dangerous.”

Immigrant-rights advocates across the country have raised similar concerns over gang classification, particularly as ICE steps up deportation proceedings against all undocumented immigrants, frequently using “gang affiliation” as justification for deportation.

In February 2017, the online publication The Intercept obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit guidelines that ICE uses to decide whether to classify someone as gang-affiliated in an ICE database. A list of 10 criteria — only two of which are required to enter someone into the ICEGangs database — includes that the “subject has been identified as a gang member through a reliable source.”

The documents the ACLU shared with the Gazette are PowerPoint slides from the state police’s information-sharing Fusion Center, and detail how COPLINK can be used. One slide in particular appears to bolster Crockford’s fears; it shows a “results screen” from a COPLINK search for one criterion: “gang member.”

Livingstone said that, in theory, law enforcement departments with access to COPLINK could see if a police officer identified somebody as gang-affiliated in an arrest report.

“If it was in the gist of the report, they would have access to it,” he said.

Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz said In Justice Today’s reporting raised questions for him,

Narkewicz said he understands the fear some might have with local police sharing information that could be viewed by ICE. But he said he’s trying to understand to what extent ICE actually accesses that information, and whether COPLINK’s usefulness to the police department as a crime-solving tool outweighs that fear.

“It’s something that I’m looking at very seriously, and obviously talking to the police chief about to try to understand how this data that we’re sharing with these other law enforcement agencies, to what extent that is being mined by ICE,” Narkewicz said.

Narkewicz issued an executive order in 2014 making Northampton a sanctuary city. He said a large part of that was making sure that immigrants felt safe reporting crimes to the police without fear of how their immigration status might affect interactions with the police department. Keeping the city safe, he said, is a priority.

“Our police department sees this as a value to them in terms of how they carry out their work of trying to keep our community safe, and trying to protect all members of our community, including immigrants,” Narkewicz added.

Information sharing

Narkewicz’s executive order includes an order not to honor ICE detainer requests when an immigrant is arrested. And ICE quickly knew about arrests even prior to local departments recently beginning to use COPLINK, he said.

“Even prior to COPLINK, there’s a mechanism where they can tell when someone is being held in a jail or has been arrested,” Narkewicz said. “I’m just trying to understand what [COPLINK] has added to this.”

In response to a public records request for any terms-of-use document the Northampton Police Department may have signed, Kasper produced an “Agency Intent to Contribute Response Form” the department signed as part of the state police’s Statewide Information Sharing System project, or SWISS, which was first unveiled in 2008.

The Gazette made repeated calls to the state police in an effort to talk with an official familiar with COPLINK about how it fits into state law enforcement’s broader information-sharing efforts. At the suggestion of the state police’s media department, the Gazette sent a list of questions via email on Friday, and had not received a response as of Monday afternoon.

COPLINK software has roots in academia, and was previously owned by tech giant IBM before it was sold last fall to the privately owned startup Forensic Logic, which provides cloud-based information technology to law enforcement agencies.

Forensic Logic’s main product appears to be the “LEAP Network,” which the company’s website describes as “a search engine and information network that is tying together America’s law enforcement like never before.”

It is unclear how exactly COPLINK fits into the LEAP Network. However, the Gazette reviewed an internal Forensic Logic slideshow from early 2017 that the company used to pitch itself to potential investors. In that document, the company describes the model as collecting data from law-enforcement, private-sector and open-source information systems, and then delivering “industry-leading search and analysis applications to law enforcement, homeland security and private sector customers.”

“We extract data from thousands of law enforcement, private sector and open source information systems in near real-time, encrypt it, and store the data in an FBI-certified secure cloud,” the slide reads. “We minimize extraction costs for our customers to encourage participation and maximize data acquisition.”

In the slideshow, the company states that in the period from 2011 to 2013 “DEA, ATF, FBI, ICE, USMS become customers,” referring to various federal law enforcement agencies.

In “testimonials” on Forensic Logic’s website, the company plays up its connections with federal law enforcement, including the FBI and ICE. “Light years ahead of any tool we’ve been given before,” an unnamed ICE supervisory special agent is quoted as saying on the page.

Attempts to reach Forensic Logic for comment by phone and email over the past week were unsuccessful. A call and email to co-founder Robert Batty went unanswered on Monday.

Critics say many questions remain unanswered about COPLINK, and in general about law enforcement harnessing massive data troves for investigations.


“Local law enforcement and local elected officials need to be very transparent about what types of information they’re collecting and how they’re sharing it with the federal government,” Crockford said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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