Hall violates DPS policy in accessing police computer

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN and SHELLY WILKISON

An Oct. 4, 2018, Liberty Hill Police body camera being worn by Officer Jeff Farmer caught Mayor Rick Hall accessing the on-board computer system in a patrol vehicle during a ride-along that included a high-speed pursuit into North Austin.

Former Police Chief Maverick Campbell raised the issue as one of two allegations against Hall in relation to the incident, claiming it was first brought to his attention by Lt. Jeff Ringstaff when the video was requested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in relation to the suspect that fled.

A review of the video, turned over to The Independent Tuesday – 127 days after it was first requested – verifies that Hall did access the computer, and appeared adept at maneuvering through the system. (See the video below and read ‘City releases requested pursuit video’, July 9, 2020)

According to a spokesperson with the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) – the agency responsible for managing the Texas Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (TLETS) used on the computers – access is meant for authorized users only and those users are required to have specific training.

“Only authorized users will have access to devices that access the Texas Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (TLETS),” the spokesperson wrote Friday in an e-mailed response to The Independent. “Additionally, authorized users attain — and must maintain — the appropriate level of training for access to TLETS.”

According to DPS, an authorized user is defined as an individual or group of individuals who have been appropriately vetted through a national fingerprint based record check and have been granted access to the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information System (CJIS).

“All users accessing information from the Texas Crime Information Center/TLETS are required to take training within six months from the date of assignment,” DPS wrote. “The user’s level of access within TLETS will dictate the course required to achieve that level of access. After obtaining the initial training, operators are required to maintain or re-certify that level of training every two years.”

Kim Vickers, executive director of the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, told The Independent this week that although he had not seen the video in question, it is a serious matter when someone who is not a sworn law enforcement officer accesses protected information on a law enforcement computer.

“If the Mayor accessed CJIS information, then that is a violation. It would initially be a violation on the officer because he allowed the Mayor to run the checks or whatever the Mayor is doing,” said Vickers. “If he accessed CJIS information, which I imagine he probably would, to try to run the license plate and everything like that — making that access available to him even if it’s just allowing him access to the computer, falls on the officer not the Mayor. Now, if the Mayor turns around and releases any of that information to someone else, then the Mayor joins in the offense. The officer is in violation of the Government Code by allowing the Mayor to do those runs.”

At risk is not only information that Hall and others should not have access to, but the Department’s future access to the system as well.

Vickers said he has seen officers lose their jobs or face disciplinary action for allowing others access to protected information contained in the system. But the repercussions on the agency are perhaps even more severe.

Vickers, who has served as executive director of TCOLE since 2011, served 27 years with the Abilene Police Department until his retirement from the department in 2006. While there, he served in a number of roles, including oversight of the training division and officer selection process, Patrol Division supervision and command, school resource officer and public information officer. Before being promoted to executive director at TCOLE, Vickers worked for the agency as a field service agent for the West Texas region, then promoted to Director of Education and Credentialing. He has 33 years experience as a teacher and trainer of law enforcement officers. He serves on the Education and Training Committees for both the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Sheriffs Association, and is on the advisory board of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, and is a past president of the Board of Directors of the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training.

“The problem is if CJIS comes in — and this is why it’s taken seriously — the one time they find it happening, they will make lots of threats. But if they find it on multiple occasions, they can come in and take that department’s right to even use CJIS information,” Vickers said. “So that’s why it’s taken so seriously because the repercussions can be very severe if it’s abused. If CJIS finds out that access is being abused, they have every right and ability to go in and pull the terminal, and pull the line number, and when they do, that agency can’t run anything. It pretty much neuters them, so it is a very serious situation. If it’s done on a regular basis, or if they can show a pattern of it, it can get real serious in a hurry.

“CJIS would not be happy at all about finding the video that you have,” he said. “They would, I’m sure, take issue with Liberty Hill PD and that officer, which ultimately goes through the PD. The officer committed the violation, but the access to the system is granted through the PD, and the whole PD could suffer because of the action of the officers.”

According to DPS, violations of the rules, regulations, policies and procedures, or any other misuse or abuse of TLETS will result in notification to the agency administrator to discuss the possibility of sanctions including, but not limited to, termination of service to the offending agency. In those situations where clear violations of the law have occurred, criminal prosecution of the offender may occur.

The TLETS system provides the DPS and local criminal justice agencies with access to the Texas Crime Information Center (TCIC); DPS’ Computerized Criminal History System (CCH); DPS’ Driver License System (DLS); The Department of Motor Vehicles’ Registration Title System (RTS), TexasSure – the Financial Responsibility Verification Program (FRVP), and Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPW). Federal and state law regulates access to and dissemination of CCH, and prescribes security and privacy rules for systems that access it.

DPS is responsible to insure that FBI CJIS Policy is applied to Texas agencies accessing FBI data.

“The data accessible through TLETS is documented criminal justice information and must be protected to ensure correct, legal and efficient dissemination and use,” the DPS spokesperson wrote. “It is incumbent upon every agency operating a TLETS terminal to implement the necessary procedures to make that terminal secure from any unauthorized access or use. Any departure from this responsibility warrants the removal of the offending terminal from further participation in the TLETS network.”

Campbell would not elaborate on any disciplinary action taken against Officer Farmer regarding this incident, but Farmer did resign from the department the following year. Campbell added, and text messages from Ringstaff and newly-appointed Chief Jeff Graeter verify, that Hall did attempt to involve himself in the disciplinary issues with Farmer.

The ride along program was suspended after the incident pending a new policy, as Campbell said Hall was a frequent rider. He also said Hall complained at the time that the program was suspended.

“CJIS looks at it as it’s serious. A single instance of that happening is not a horribly egregious offense, but it could be if it’s an indicator of a more systemic abuse of that system,” Vickers said.

“If it were me and I’m trying to run my agency correctly, then I would discipline the officer depending on the severity of the situation and if it was an ongoing or just a one-time incident. I would contact CJIS and say ‘we’ve had this breach and I’m reporting it to you in full disclosure, it has been dealt with and it won’t happen again’,” he said. “I think that covers you with CJIS quite a bit where if they come in later and do an inspection, which they do, and start looking at stuff and say ‘hey, did this happen’, well yeah, and we took care of it, as opposed to ‘you didn’t bother to let us know about it and what else are you not telling us’.”

Based on his knowledge of the patrol unit computer, Vickers said there is very little that the Mayor could be doing on the computer that wouldn’t be “crossing a line of an offense, of getting privileged information. Possibly, helping the officer checking local records type deal, which doesn’t necessarily fall under CJIS stuff, but that’s pushing it to reach out to that. I really can’t see a practical use on there that he would not be accessing information to which he’s not entitled. If it’s in the middle of a chase and it’s in the process of doing that stuff, then it is extremely reasonable to conclude that he is doing stuff to try to help gain information on the person that’s running, which would be CJIS protected information. The fact that he looks proficient doing it probably means that it’s not his first time to do it and this is something that happens pretty regularly, which now we go back to how systemic is this or how frequent is this. At face value, it would appear that he’s done it on multiple occasions and has learned how to use it.”

Vickers added that his concern over the incident would go in multiple directions had it occurred under his watch, and an internal affairs investigation would determine whether it was voluntary on the part of the officer or whether there was coercion on the part of a mayor, who was in a position to make decisions regarding his employment.

“First, is my officer being compromised? Is my officer being ordered to show him how to do this?” he said. “If so, the officer still shouldn’t do it. You have to follow orders as an officer unless what you’re ordered to do is illegal. There’s always provisions to protect the officer from having to do something that’s an unlawful act.”

“Did the Mayor actually force the hand on that, or is it the officer that is willing to let the Mayor do it? If he (the officer) was coerced into it, then the Mayor is who needs to be addressed. If it’s the officer whose doing it to be buddies and try to suck up to the Mayor a little bit, then the officer needs to be addressed — maybe a little of both — but very concerning.”

“Any policy violations, to include unauthorized access or use of information obtained from the TLETS system, is to be reported immediately to designated agency personnel for immediate and necessary action,” the DPS spokesperson wrote.

It is unclear at this time if this incident, or any other, was reported to DPS.

The Independent submitted a written request Tuesday for an interview with Lt. Ringstaff and Mayor Hall to discuss the video. The newspaper’s request was confirmed to The Independent’s legal counsel as received by the City’s attorney. However, at the time this story was published Friday afternoon, there had been no response regarding the request.

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