A police department in California has gotten busted for using a smartphone app that automatically and permanently deletes text messages, possibly (and probably) to hide incriminating evidence.
From Al Jazeera:
Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit has discovered that a self-deleting messaging app called Tiger Text has been adopted by at least one US police department, which may have used it to share sensitive and potentially incriminating information that they wouldn’t want to be disclosed to a court.
Current and former officers from the Long Beach Police Department in Southern California have told Al Jazeera that their police-issued phones had Tiger Text installed on them.
The TigerText app erases text messages after a designated time period. Once the messages have been deleted, they cannot be retrieved – even through forensic investigation of the phone.
The police officers who spoke with Al Jazeera said the confidential messaging system was used to share details of police operations and sensitive personnel issues.
Two officers said their superiors instructed them to use the app to “have conversations with other officers that wouldn’t be discoverable”. The officers said they understood this to include exculpatory evidence that could potentially be useful to attorneys in both civil and criminal cases against the police department.
“I find it odd that we have a communication system that circumvents everything that we are supposed to be doing,” an officer (who is still with the department) told Al Jazeera. But “nothing surprises me working there.”
Local news site the Beachcomber reports that they were told about the TigerText app back in February 2018, when a confidential source inside the LBPD informed them that the app “was in use by detectives assigned to narcotics, gangs, intelligence and homicide units, including detectives who investigate officer involved shootings”.
The source told the Beachcomber that when the app was assigned, the detectives were not given any written instructions regarding use, but were told: “The app is to be used in situations where we don’t want the texting information to get out to the public – or to be discoverable.”
What kinds of things might the LBPD (and other police departments that use TigerText and similar apps) be trying to hide?
Well, for starters, the LBPD ranked fifth in the US for officer-involved shootings per capita in 2015. The city has paid out tens of millions of dollars in civil lawsuit settlements to the families of the victims.
One former police officer told Al Jazeera he believes this is what motivated the department to start using the app:
“There have been a number of officer-involved shooting cases that have hurt the department. This is a way for them to conceal and get away with some of the negative things that affect their liability with these cases.”
Mohammad Tajsar, a lawyer with the ACLU of Southern California, told Al Jazeera that he was shocked by the officers’ claims:
“If the department brass instructed members of the force to use TigerText to shield from the public the disclosure of sensitive messages about investigations into police killings, then this is an institutional cover-up of the highest order, designed to protect a department that is notorious for killing people.”
Tajsar told The San Diego Union-Tribune that it appears that Long Beach is circumventing a California law that requires cities to preserve records for two years:
“It might potentially throw into doubt the validity of a whole host of cases. You have the prospect of destroyed evidence in a whole bunch of cases.… It’s very important, in fact critical, that the city conduct a thorough investigation into the use of TigerText — how its officers communicated using it, what they communicated and the impact of those communications on prior cases.”
Al Jazeera’s investigation into the use of TigerText revealed that the Georgia Department of Corrections also began using the application in 2013, but “lawyers for the department quickly decided that its use would likely violate Georgia law, possibly breaching the state’s records retention legislation and most likely leading to court discovery violations”.
According to the city, the TigerText application is installed on 145 of the 291 cellphones issued by the LBPD. That includes the phones of the command staff, as well as homicide and internal affairs investigators. The department employs 1,214 workers and has used the app since 2014.
In a statement Tuesday, the city announced that the LBPD has suspended use of the app over concerns that it may violate the city’s record retention policy, which raises questions about whether evidence was destroyed in cases.
The decision to suspend the use of TigerText came “pending further review of whether the use is consistent with the city’s record retention policy and administrative regulations for the use of mobile devices,” the statement explains.
Recent Public Records Act requests and media inquiries have prompted the department to review of the use of the app, reports The San Diego Union-Tribune.
The city said the Police Department began using the app when it transitioned to iPhones, which “did not have a built-in secure communication feature sufficient” for the agency.
“The primary purpose of the TigerConnect application was to allow for a continued means of transitory, immediate and secure communications regarding operational and personnel matters,” the city said. “Police Department employees have been trained to and do document any exculpatory/discoverable evidence in a police report or other formal departmental communication.”
TigerText is promoted as a messaging app for healthcare providers that is secure and compliant with federal patient privacy rules. It is unclear how many police departments use the app.