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Protect, Serve, Snoop

June 05, 2003

Yet another Los Angeles cop may have sold information from confidential police databases. It's going to cost the city plenty, and not just in lawsuits. It raises one more doubt that the scandal-scarred Los Angeles Police Department can reform itself.

As reported in Wednesday's Times, the LAPD suspended Sgt. Mark Arneson pending an FBI probe into whether the 29-year department veteran passed information to Anthony Pellicano, a Hollywood private investigator. Sounds like a bad crime novel.

Arneson's computer logs, police sources told The Times, showed a connection to people Pellicano was investigating. They also showed that he had checked the records of a Times reporter who was investigating a dispute between actor Steven Seagal and a former Seagal partner alleged to have Mafia ties. A man later charged with leaving a dead fish, a rose and a note saying "Stop" on the reporter's car allegedly told an FBI informant that he had been hired by Pellicano.

Also under investigation is LAPD Officer Kelly Chrisman, for allegedly selling data on Hollywood stars to the National Enquirer. According to his ex-girlfriend, Chrisman investigated her as well -- a charge the city paid almost $400,000 in April to settle.

Abuse of private records is not new. Anyone familiar with the more sordid parts of the LAPD's history knows about the infamous Public Disorder Intelligence Division, which, through a lawsuit brought by citizens groups and the ACLU in 1981, was found to have spied on the mayor, City Council members, state officials and religious, civil rights and other organizations.

Today's technology does make finding information easier and quicker for anyone who works with sensitive records, be they bankers, hospital clerks or cops. Technology also can offer a partial fix. Administrators can control access to information. Software can be programmed to flag unusual patterns. But technology is neither the whole problem nor the whole solution.

"The police department is a steward of extremely sensitive information, and should treat it as such," says Beth Givens of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. "They need to train, train, train. And they need to keep the message clear by backing it up with sanctions."

Chrisman was not even suspended until Chief William J. Bratton, who took office in October, learned about the years-long investigation. Now he sits at home collecting paychecks. The message needs work.

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