Several corruption cases against the New York Police Department over the last few years have shown that crooked police officers use the FBI criminal database to look up information, snoop on colleagues, tip off drug dealers, stage robberies and, in the case of cannibal-cop Gilberto Valle, even research plans to abduct and eat women.
Nine million entries are added each day to the National Crime Information Center database, which is operated by the FBI, The Associated Press reported. There are 90,000 agencies that utilize the NCIC, which includes information on fugitives, sex offenders, stolen cars and guns, orders of protection and more. The NYPD also has access to state criminal and Department of Motor Vehicle records.
But access to these databases must be authorized. The NYPD is under orders to only use it in ongoing investigations, car stops and other police work. How many times it was used for unauthorized searches is unclear.
In March, 6-year veteran of force, Gilbert Valle, was convicted of conspiracy to kidnap and illegal of federal databases. Valle was accused of using the database to look up information and conduct surveillance on up to 100 potential targets.
A document found on Valle’s computer said, “I was thinking of tying her body onto some kind of apparatus ... cook her over low heat, keep her alive as long as possible.”
Now NYPD Det. Edwin Vargas is also accused on unauthorized access to the system.
“As alleged, Detective Edwin Vargas paid thousands of dollars for the ability to illegally invade the privacy of his fellow officers and others," said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. "He is also alleged to have illegally obtained information about two officers from a federal database to which he had access based on his status as an NYPD detective."
If convicted, Vargas could face a year in jail.
While the FBI said in a statement that access audits show "malicious misuse is not commonly discovered,” experts have testified that police can easily override safeguards.
In 2012, patrolman Jose Tejada was charged by federal authorities with belonging to a group of robbers who posed as officers in order to stage more than 100 robberies of drug traffickers.
According to court documents, Tejada "ran the names of coconspirators through law enforcement databases to determine whether there were active warrants in the names of the coconspirators.”
The crew not only intercepted 250 kilos of cocaine, they also took $1 million in cash.
"In connection with these searches, Tejada advised coconspirators whether they could reenter the United States without being arrested by law enforcement authorities,” said prosecutors.
During a 2010 trial against an officer accused of using the database to surveil and rob a perfume warehouse in New Jersey, an investigator told jurors that officers commonly log into the system with another officer’s name.
When asked if officers could even log in anonymously, the investigator responded, "I know it occurs. I wouldn't say it's common, but I know it does occur."