The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department held a news briefing on Tuesday to publicly announce the release of its policy regarding the use of a clandestine cellphone surveillance tool known as a “StingRay.”
The event was open to any credentialed member of the media except for one: Thom Jensen, the KXTV (Channel 10) reporter who brought the agency’s use of StingRay devices.
Jensen, who won a regional Emmy award for his series of reports on the sheriff’s department’s secret use of the devices, was prohibited from attending the press conference at the direction of Sheriff Scott Jones, according to a news report issued by the station Tuesday.
A “StingRay” is one part of a cellphone surveillance system used by law enforcement that mimics a communications tower, forcing all phones within a given area — usually a one city block radius — to connect to it instead of a legitimate tower. Once connected, police are able to gather and analyze a large trove of phone metadata, including call logs, text messages and other data.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it would restrict how federal law enforcement agents are allowed to use StingRays, directing FBI agents and other federal officers to delete phone records that are not relevant to ongoing criminal investigations and ordering agents to obtain a warrant before the devices are used.
But the order did not require local law enforcement agencies around the country to comply with the same policy. Some 40 local and state police departments, sheriff’s departments and other agencies are known to have StingRays according to lawsuits and open records requests filed by citizens and journalists. The number of actual agencies with the devices is believed to be higher, though concrete numbers are hard to confirm because of the intense secrecy around the devices.
Such secrecy is often cited by local law enforcement as one reason why warrants are sometimes — and in some cases, often — not obtained before StingRays and similar surveillance gear is used by police. And although the federal government requires local law enforcement sign a non-disclosure agreement designed to limit how much is publicly known about the devices, the Justice Department did not require local law enforcement to adopt its policy as a condition of purchase or use of the devices.
The Sacramento Sheriff’s Department is the first agency to voluntarily adopt a new policy that is derived from the one released earlier this month by the Justice Department. Under the new policy, the agency will purge all data collected by its StingRay after its use, and will seek “judicial review” before its officers deploy a StingRay except in cases involving a missing person, disaster response or “where death or great bodily injury may be imminent.”
The agency also released a copy of its non-disclosure agreement signed between the department at the Harris Corporation, the manufacturer of the StingRay equipment, as required by the Justice Department. Previously, it denied the agreement under public records requests filed by Jensen and The Desk.
A video published by the sheriff’s department on YouTube showed Jones speaking at a podium mounted with microphones from three of the four English-language news outlets in Sacramento. KXTV’s microphone was not among them. On Twitter, Jensen complained that the sheriff “won’t let me attend” the briefing.
Jensen declined to comment for this story, referring media inquiries to KXTV’s general manager.
KXTV later said another reporter from the station took Jensen’s place at the briefing. When asked why Jones refused to allow Jensen to attend, the sheriff responded that he believed the reporter was misbehaving.
“If I have a problem with one person because of the manner in which they conduct their business — and I do have a problem with only one person in the manner in which he conducts his business — I think it would be irresponsible for me to allow that misconduct to continue,” Jones said.
This is not the first time the agency has refused to cooperate with KXTV regarding their series of stories on the StingRay gear: Last year, the sheriff’s refused to answer Jensen’s questions about StingRays when confronted at a public event months after the station’s initial report on the devices.
Station newsroom employees who asked to remain anonymous told The Desk at the time that the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department had removed KXTV from their distribution lists for press releases, and that for a brief period afterward the agency refused to return messages and phone calls about other matters.
On Tuesday, Jones criticized certain unidentified media outlets for “filling in the gaps” in their reports on the devices when he was unable to answer questions related to the agency’s use. But he also praised other media outlets for not questioning him, saying he was grateful those outlets chose to “(take) me at my word.”
A copy of the agency’s new policy and non-disclosure agreement was distributed to reporters at the press briefing, Jones said. It was not clear if KXTV received either of those records.