A Touch Of Dystopia: Milwaukee Police Hid Stingray Use From Courts, Says ACLU

Scrutinous pressure continues to bury Milwaukee’s police department despite its recent DOJ-sponsored public forum. Days later, the ACLU blasted the MPD’s ongoing, warrantless, bulk collection of cell phone data. What’s more, despite Chief Ed Flynn’s P.R. event, his force intentionally and repeatedly hid this fact from courts. The ACLU’s offensive, additionally, suggests the MPD’s surveillance initiative perhaps goes above even Flynn.

Alongside the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU filed an amicus brief regarding a particular ongoing case. According to the ACLU’s web page, in the 7th Circuit Court case, Milwaukee police appeared suspiciously reluctant to disclose how they tracked down a suspect. The non-profit cited “oddly vague language” officers used to describe their locating methodology. In post-reports, officers claimed they’re “obtained” location data came from an “unknown source.”

MPD’s initial efforts to stonewall the defense and court, the ACLU reports, backfired during the evidentiary hearing. After the suspect motioned to surpass evidence, officers were forced to divulge their Stingrays, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Departments nationwide have been outed as using Stingrays, devices which trick cell phone towers into divulging sensitive information. Many, particularly the Federal Bureau of Investigations, have designed elaborately unconstitutional Stingray-centric surveillance programs as a result.

“If the government did, in fact, use a stingray in this case”, read ACLU’s brief, “and failed both to disclose this fact to the judge who issued the pen/trap order and to the defendant, this would be sufficient grounds for suppressing the evidence gathered as a result of using the device.”

Flynn’s force didn’t stop there, according to the ACLU, as 579 similar cases were located and analyzed by privacy activist Mike Katz-Lacabe. After compiling a case list, one of which matched the ACLU’s choice, Katz-Lacabe issued a FOIA request for more details. The ACLU issued multiple briefs, including one specifying why officers must acquire a probable cause warrant before utilizing Stingrays.

“The requirement”, the ACLU’s brief read, Jsonline reports, “that police obtain a warrant ensures that judges can prevent the police from undertaking unjustified fishing expeditions that can reveal intimate details about a person’s activities, associations, and beliefs.” Personally, it’s the surveillance of ideas which I find most disturbing. Monitoring habits is one thing, though still questionable. Surveying the ideas and beliefs of people via phone data for unknown reasons steps too far into an Orwellian realm for any “free society” to tolerate. A touch of dystopia.

Stingrays, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, were cited in 2014 laws requiring warrants before use. That, of course, defaults the department’s apparent overuse of the devices as steeply illegal and punishable in some capacity. “Overuse” appears to be no exaggeration, as the MPD apparently used Stingrays to track down people who missed court dates. If they’re using them for such trivial things, what else does Chief Flynn consider appropriate for data collection?

This is oftentimes the point where someone interjects, claiming if you’re not doing anything wrong then there isn’t a problem. Calling these people ignorant, misguided, even close minded or selfish is a gross understatement. American police culture seems to be caught in a transitional phase between the warrior-cop and the intelligence cop, neither are sustainable democratic models. Both build walls between police and public, encouraging police to prey on the people when useful.

As details surface, it seems clear the Milwaukee Police Department utilized its Stingrays as a means of streamlining convictions. How many convictions would not have been so had it not been for undisclosed Stingray use? How many of those convictions were justified, how many were just for the dollar signs? Police subverting the courts they’re sworn to uphold for the sake of nourishing the prison industrial complex is insanity by definition.

Where, however, does the pressure come from? The American Civil Liberties Union’s brief, interestingly enough, also tackles this facet head-on. During its investigation, the ACLU discovered the MPD signed a nondisclosure agreement with the FBI promising to keep Stingrays secret. Such is a theme recurring again and again in cities where police have made such extensive use of the unethical data collecting trinkets. Despite any crimes MPD and it’s lesser colleagues may commit, one must wonder how much of it via shady federal mandate. If the latter holds true, then what was the DOJ’s Milwaukee visit worth?


Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a writer and freelance journalist native to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing can be found on Cop Block, The Pontiac Tribune, and The Fifth Column News. Video's produced by Isiah are published under the tag YungCartographer Productions.