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Officer's Star Searches Raise Liability Worries

City studies possible legal fallout from use of police computer to get data on celebrities.

April 08, 2003|Wendy Thermos | Times Staff Writer

For six years, Officer Kelly Chrisman used Los Angeles Police Department computers to look up confidential law enforcement records on celebrities and other high-profile people, including Sharon Stone, Courteney Cox Arquette, Sean Penn and Halle Berry.

Chrisman says he was just carrying out orders from superiors, but a lawsuit recently settled by the city for nearly $400,000 alleged that the officer had accessed the records to sell the information to tabloids.

Now Los Angeles officials are assessing the city's potential liability.

According to internal LAPD documents, between 1994 and 2000 Chrisman tapped computer files on scores of celebrities, including Meg Ryan, Kobe Bryant, O.J. Simpson, Larry King, Drew Barrymore, Dionne Warwick, Farrah Fawcett, Cindy Crawford, Elle Macpherson and Berry Gordy.

The officer does not deny he looked up celebrities in police databases, but says department brass had ordered him to devise a locator map of Westside VIP residences. The LAPD maintains there was no such project and has filed misconduct charges that could result in Chrisman's firing.

The 34-year-old officer has denied that he accessed computer records improperly.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court by Chrisman's former girlfriend, said Chrisman had collected the data for financial gain, but LAPD investigators say they could not pin down a motive.

"We just don't know," said Deputy Chief James McMurray, until recently the chief of internal affairs. "There was all sorts of rumor and speculation."Officials say unauthorized access alone violates department regulations, and no motive needs to be shown.

Whatever the motive, the case prompted worried debate during a closed session of the City Council on March 19, when council members voted unanimously to pay $387,500 to settle the lawsuit. According to sources, the council also directed its staff to study the liability the city might face as a result of unauthorized computer use by Chrisman or possibly by other officers.

The suit by Cyndy Truhan, ex-wife of former Dodger Steve Garvey, alleged that Chrisman had violated her privacy by using LAPD computers to secretly investigate her, as well as hundreds of other people, and that he had made a significant side income by selling the information to tabloids. In settling the suit, the city admitted no wrongdoing by Chrisman or the LAPD.

Councilman Dennis Zine said he and other council members found the Chrisman case disturbing and are concerned that the city might be at risk for more legal action. The LAPD has no monitoring system to detect unauthorized computer use, officials said.

"How many other situations do we have like this?" Zine asked. "How does this go unchecked? We're spending almost $400,000 of taxpayer money on this one suit, and God knows how many more will come down the line."

Zine, who was a police officer for more than 30 years, said council members had held a long discussion in closed session. "This wasn't a case of, 'Let's pass this and thank you very much.' I had some serious questions and my colleagues joined me in those questions," he said.

Chief William J. Bratton, who took office in October, declined to be interviewed about the Chrisman case and the issues Zine raised. As soon as he learned of the case, Bratton placed Chrisman on home duty, similar to paid leave, until the charges are resolved. Department officials would not comment on why Chrisman had not been placed on leave earlier.

Chrisman no longer has computer access to confidential records. LAPD officials canceled his password for logging onto the system shortly after the investigation began.

Much of Chrisman's alleged activity and the resulting investigation occurred while Bernard Parks was chief, from 1997 to 2002. Parks, now a city councilman, also refused to comment.

Chrisman's attorney, Christopher A. Darden, rejected any suggestion that his client, a 13-year LAPD veteran, had made money as a news tipster by mining law enforcement databases. "There's really nothing in those records to sell to tabloids," Darden said. "He didn't do it. That's that."

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Trove of Information

LAPD computers are used to call up a variety of data, including addresses, criminal histories, birth dates, driving records, ownership of vehicles, physical descriptions, Social Security numbers, restraining orders and, in some cases, unlisted phone numbers.

The information is stored in state Department of Justice databases, which hook into a U.S. Department of Justice information network that allows users to obtain records in other states.

Federal and state laws, as well as LAPD regulations, permit access to the data for duty-related reasons only. Each time an LAPD user logs on, a warning reminds the user that a violation can result in criminal prosecution. Unauthorized use can also bring job penalties ranging from a reprimand to dismissal.

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