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L.A. County prosecutors investigating Long Beach police use of controversial app

L.A. County prosecutors investigating Long Beach police use of controversial app
Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna, seen during a 2014 news conference, has suspended the department's use of a messaging app that stoked fierce criticism from civil liberties advocates. Los Angeles prosecutors have now launched a review of the department's use of TigerText. (Cheryl A. Guerrero / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County prosecutors are investigating the Long Beach Police Department’s use of a controversial self-deleting messaging application, which has caused some to question whether the department violated rules on court discovery and records retention.

The district attorney’s Justice System Integrity Division — which reviews matters of law enforcement misconduct, officer-involved shootings and deaths in police custody — has begun a review of the Police Department’s use of TigerText, officials said.

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On Friday, Long Beach officials announced they had hired an outside firm to review the department’s use of TigerText. The firm will be tasked with looking into the “origin and implementation” of the app, and how it was used, by police officers, a statement issued by the city said.

A spokesman for the district attorney’s office declined to answer questions Friday about what its review of the program would entail. Long Beach Police Cmdr. Eric Herzog said the city was actively searching for a firm to conduct the review but had not chosen one as of Friday afternoon.

Long Beach police came under heavy criticism this week after an Al Jazeera report revealed the department’s use of the app. In the report, two anonymous city police officers said they were instructed by superiors to use the app to “have conversations with other officers that wouldn’t be discoverable” in criminal or civil filings.

Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna has denied those allegations and said officers using the app have been trained to document in police reports any information that might be relevant to a court proceeding. The department has suspended use of the app and is exploring how its approval was vetted, Luna said.

According to the city, the TigerText application is installed on 145 of the 291 cellphones issued by the department. That includes the phones of the command staff, as well as homicide and internal affairs investigators. The law enforcement agency employs 1,214 workers and has used the app since 2014.

Luna said the department began using TigerText in the hopes of finding a secure, encrypted method of communication on department phones after the agency switched its mobile devices from Blackberrys to iPhones in 2014.

Use of the app was approved by Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who was running the Police Department at the time. In an interview with The Times this week, McDonnell said he did not know about the application’s self-deletion feature and said he would not choose to use it again.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed records requests with a number of large police departments in California to see if others were using the application. The Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Diego police departments and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department have confirmed they do not use it.

The app deletes messages five days after they are sent, according to Luna. A city spokeswoman said the department planned to make public the ranks and assignments of all officers who were using TigerText, but it had not done so as of Friday morning.

Critics, including the ACLU, have pointed out that a number of other encrypted messaging services have long been available to police, including Signal, WhatsApp and the iPhone’s iMessage system. Those applications do not delete messages on their default settings and they can be used free of charge.

It cost Long Beach Police roughly $10,000 per year to use TigerText, according to city records.

In a letter sent Friday, the ACLU demanded that Long Beach police immediately discontinue their contract with TigerText and called for the agency to launch a thorough internal review to see if any civil litigants or criminal defendants were unfairly impacted by the department’s use of TigerText.

In a statement, Mayor Robert Garcia praised Luna for suspending the use of the app and said he would “strongly support the initiation of this independent review to understand how the system was used and to ensure that the city is complying with all applicable laws.”

3:25 p.m.: This article was updated with information about the city of Long Beach’s independent review of the Police Department’s use of TigerText, and comments from the mayor of Long Beach.

This article was originally published at 12:25 p.m.

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