Kensington Cops Used Confidential Database to Gather Information on Police Board Member

Records released under a new state police transparency law show Kensington police officers accessed a confidential database nine times to gather information on a now former elected official. (iStock/Getty Images)

In what a privacy expert called an "extremely egregious” example of police abusing their authority, Kensington officers accessed a highly confidential state law enforcement database at least nine times to gather information on a now former elected official who was critical of their department.

The documents, released under the state's new police accountability law, Senate Bill 1421, deliver another black eye for the police department in this tiny, affluent, unincorporated town in the hills north of Berkeley.

The revelations are contained in records about an officer who was fired for leaking information about the data searches and later denying it to investigators. The documents show that multiple officers, whose names are blacked out, accessed records on former police board member Vanessa Cordova in 2014 and 2015 through the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, known as CLETS. The system contains information on California residents' criminal history, driving records and links to national law enforcement databases. Its use for non-law enforcement purposes can be a felony under state law.

“Why should people outside of Kensington care about this?” asked Dave Maass, an investigative researcher for the Electronic Frontier Foundation who has looked into CLETS abuse. “Because these cops can spy on anyone in the state. It’s alarming (and) an extremely egregious example” of abuse of the database.

“We’ve long suspected this is the sort of thing that is going on all the time,” Maass said.

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In two instances, the name of the officer searching records on Cordova was not entered into the system. One search occurred the day before officers Juan Ramos and Keith Barrow pulled her over in Berkeley on Oct. 7, 2015, and ticketed her for an overdue registration and missing front license plate.

Cordova claimed they harassed her. Both officers were disciplined for the stop, but an investigator found no harassment occurred, a finding Cordova disputes. The officers claimed the stop was made randomly while they were on their way to buy energy drinks. A judge later dismissed the tickets.

Only Ramos has been previously tied to directly searching Cordova's records. Former Kensington Police Chief Kevin Hart said in 2016 that just a "minor infraction" of CLETS rules was found when Ramos was investigated after the traffic stop, and "there is no evidence of any widespread misuse. Any claims of additional CLETS abuse is without merit and not true."

But the records released Friday show the number of searches is much higher than Kensington officials have ever acknowledged.

Reached Tuesday, Hart said he didn't recall any finding that Cordova's records were accessed at least nine times.

"I have moved on and I don't remember," he said. "But I would I stand by my statement."

Cordova responded angrily to the revelations. "I don't feel vindicated, I feel violated," she wrote in an email. The records confirm "what I have always alleged: that I was targeted by members of the Kensington Police Department in political retaliation for my police reform agenda."

Cordova had helped to push out a former chief, Greg Harman, for his light discipline of Barrow when the officer's gun and badge were stolen by a sex worker in Reno in 2014 after he paid her for sex and fell asleep.

Tuesday, the president of the board of directors of the Kensington Police Protection and Community Services District called for an investigation.

"I have asked our attorney to investigate these abuses," Eileen Nottoli said, pointing out that the documents show officers were accessing Cordova's records "even before she took office (in 2014). I find that very odd."

Nottoli said some residents who have been critical of the department, or favored disbanding it in favor of contracting with another agency for police services, have said police harassed them. "I have heard many stories from residents, and I do wonder, I do wonder," she said.

The number of times the database was used to access Cordova’s driving record and personnel information was revealed in documents detailing the firing of Sgt. Kevin Hui, in 2016. Hui had conducted an audit of the CLETS searches as part of an internal investigation of the traffic stop and leaked the results to Cordova, investigators found. He was fired after denying he gave her the information.

Hui did not return phone and email messages Tuesday.

Kensington isn't alone in officers abusing the police databases or spying on people.

A San Diego sheriff’s deputy was sentenced to a year in jail last year for groping a 14-year-old girl. Investigators found he improperly accessed his own criminal case more than 33 times before he was arrested.

In the border town of Calexico in Imperial County, federal investigators found that police spent $100,000 on equipment, some of it described as "James Bond spy glasses," for surveillance of city council members and citizens who complained about police abuses.

In Kensington, police district general manager Tony Constantouros said the town keeps trying to move beyond embarrassments such as Barrow's stolen gun, Harman's ouster and the Cordova traffic stop.

"We want to go forward," Constantouros said Tuesday. "But the past keeps coming back."

Sukey Lewis of KQED News contributed to this report.

This story was reported in collaboration with the Bay Area News Group and Investigative Studios, an independent nonprofit news organization affiliated with the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley.

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