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|Police Database Network Targets People Who Apply For Gun Permits
Some see it as the sort of tool that just might give police a break the next time someone abducts a child. Others see it as an assault on personal privacy, a Big Brother network operating outside the bounds of state regulation.
Most, though, know nothing of the Multiple Jurisdiction Network Organization, a privately owned, state-run project that links case files of law enforcement agencies around Minnesota.
The network is raising some of the same privacy concerns as a wider project known as Matrix, which involves more than a dozen states and some $12 million in federal funds. Created so states can track would-be terrorists, the Matrix database is being built and housed in the offices of a private company.
Through a password-protected Internet site, the Minnesota system gives police access - sometimes right from their squad cars - to a deep mine of police records that includes the names of suspects, witnesses and those who have been arrested, convicted and sought gun permits. The network sometimes offers a physical description and also contains juvenile files.
More than 175 agencies that collectively police two-thirds of the state's population have signed up so far, sharing more than 8 million records. Agencies from neighboring Wisconsin have also begun sharing their files.
Now, spurred by citizens who've found themselves scrutinized because of the system, the network is facing questions about the state's involvement, whether people can get access to information shown about them and whether the system is accurate and secure.
As questions have been raised, access to the records was shut down a week ago because of an alleged security breach. The state official who runs the network, Bob Johnson, said on Monday that he hopes to have it back online in two weeks.
Scott Chapman may have been one of the first people outside law enforcement to become aware of the system's reach. Chapman, a computer systems administrator, was demonstrating outside a congressman's office last spring when a police sergeant stopped him and asked to search his fanny pack.
Finding nothing unusual, the officer allowed him to leave. But from reviewing police reports of the search, Chapman later learned the officer was suspicious in part because he'd searched the network and found that Chapman had been denied a permit to carry a concealed handgun.
"Here I've done nothing wrong. I've done everything right. I applied for a legal permit and followed the process," Chapman said. "Now I find out that my name is commingled with all of the felons and arrestees and everyone else? It just seems wrong."
The project was launched by the private nonprofit Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association and became available statewide in 2001. The state took over its operation in March with an 18-month lease; officials hope to merge it with a broader effort to link court and police information.
Dennis Delmont, executive director of the chiefs association, stressed that only police have access to the system. He said the association doesn't own or alter the data. The system, he says, is merely a pipe linking one agency's data to another.
Critics are "concerned why the Chiefs of Police Association collects all this information on them. The answer is, we don't," he said. "We facilitate the collection by pointing to the data."
One investigator says it helped him do in four hours what would have taken his full staff a week. A testimonial on the network's Web sit boasts that "tools like MJNO are changing the way we do business."
But Chapman's attorney, gun-rights activist David Gross, questions the accuracy of the information and the security of the system. He's considering a lawsuit, and says the system should be shut down because it was never authorized by the Legislature and doesn't comply with parts of the state's open records law.
He said he believes state law demands that citizens have access to any data collected on them, provided they aren't the suspect of an investigation. Delmont said those questions should be taken to the agencies that hold the actual records.
Mostly through Chapman's efforts to bring the system to their attention, lawmakers are beginning to question it. One of them, Republican Rep. Mary Liz Holberg was frustrated when she tried to find out what records the network has on her.
For $15, she got a summary sheet that showed one agency with her name in its records. To find out more, she was told to contact that police department directly.
"I want to see what the cops see on their screens," Holberg said. "I don't understand why the MJNO screen on me is not accessible to me."
Holberg said she can see the benefits of the system to police, but she's concerned enough to plan hearings on the police system for the next legislative session.
"There needs to be major big time discussion from a public policy standpoint before we get much further down the road," she said.