Politics & Government

Some Tacoma council members say they were briefed on surveillance device

By Kate Martin - Staff writer

September 03, 2014 07:08 PM

Two Tacoma City Council members said this week that they each received a briefing from the city’s police chief last year that went beyond what the Police Department publicly revealed in seeking an update of cellphone surveillance equipment.

Councilman Marty Campbell said Chief Don Ramsdell told him in early 2013 that the upgrade would allow police to continue to track down criminal suspects using their cellphones. Councilman Robert Thoms, whose briefing was apparently less detailed, said he was told that police were upgrading technology used to solve crimes.

Both council members said they were briefed prior to the council’s March 2013 approval of a $251,752 upgrade for the Police Department’s cellphone surveillance equipment.

The purchase was described in city memos and a council resolution as necessary for the “prevention, protection response and recovery” of improvised explosive devices. The Police Department said last week that it has never used the equipment, a portable device generally called a cell site simulator, in that way.

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Instead, police use the equipment to locate suspects by tracking their phone signals.

“It was to be used like ‘Where’s Waldo,’ ” Campbell said of his briefing last year. “We turn this on, there’s Waldo’s phone.”

Other council members have said they do not remember being told exactly what the equipment does before they approved the purchase. In a statement Wednesday, Tacoma police said, “All City Council members were briefed between February 25, 2013 and March 2, 2013 on the general capabilities of the equipment.”

Commonly called a Stingray, the device exploits a flaw in cellphone security by tricking cellphones into connecting with it instead of a nearby cellphone tower. It also sweeps up information on all cellphones within its range, according to technology experts.

Thoms said Ramsdell and Assistant Chief Kathy McAlpine pulled him aside during a 2013 City Council retreat.

“It was upgrading software to address a wide range of technology options for solving crimes,” Thoms said. He said he didn’t ask too many questions because he was comfortable with the explanation. “That seemed to be fine with me because I want them to have every tool necessary to help save lives and find people and detect bombs.”

Campbell said police told him that they needed the software upgrade to keep up with rapidly evolving cellphone technology. Documents indicate the upgrade police received last year was a Hailstorm, which allows police to track phones that use 4G LTE technology.

Since police were seeking an upgrade of equipment they already had, Campbell assumed the previous City Council had vetted it.

But several who served on the Tacoma City Council in 2007 and 2008 — the years during which the city received a federal grant for the device and took possession of it — said they do not remember any briefings or meetings in which the technology was discussed. The News Tribune has filed records requests for documents about the original acquisition.

Former City Councilman Mike Lonergan, now the Pierce County assessor-treasurer, said he remembers a number of presentations on U.S. Department of Homeland Security grants, but nothing about a device that finds people through cellphone signals.

“I do recall a grant that involved technology related to the fact that we are a major port city,” Lonergan said. “It was written from a homeland security aspect.”

Connie Ladenberg, now a Pierce County councilwoman, was chairwoman of the City Council’s public safety committee in 2007. She said she also doesn’t remember being told about a surveillance device or something that can prevent IEDs. Same for former City Councilman and current County Councilman Rick Talbert.

“The first I heard about it I read in the paper,” he said. “I have no recollection of ever having conversations about it. It certainly seems that, had I heard something about it, I would certainly remember. It does seem quite extensive and intrusive.”

Talbert echoed the concerns of many civil libertarians about police owning such devices with little public oversight.

“I certainly see the benefit of it, but it raises all kinds of questions for me when it comes to personal liberties and Fourth Amendment issues,” he said. “ It seems kind of Big Brother-ish.”

Former Mayor Bill Baarsma and former councilman Jake Fey also said they do not recall any briefings or sessions held on this technology. Baarsma, however, said he wouldn’t be surprised if there had been one.

“There was a lot of technology that was being discussed, within the context of a broader threat, that was being made available to police departments,” Baarsma said.

The Police Department said in a statement last week that it uses the device only with permission from a judge, and that the device does not retain any data or intercept the content of calls or texts. It has said it can answer only limited questions about the device because of the nondisclosure agreement it signed with the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a condition of receiving the equipment.

Records show the department has used the Stingray 179 times since it started using the device in 2009, mostly for drug cases. That number includes instances in which TPD deployed the device on behalf of other agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department.