Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard Friday defended his office’s use of cellphone tracking devices, a subject that is scheduled to be taken up by lawmakers Thursday in the Legislature’s Public Safety Committee meeting.
Howard acknowledged the Sheriff’s Office owns and uses technology that allows for the tracking of cellular devices. However, he said, the office does not possess equipment that allows for the interception of cellphone calls or text messages, nor any equipment that is capable of collecting personal data from targeted mobile phones.
“Utilization of this technology is only done so with appropriate judicial or legal authority, or in instances when life is immediately at stake,” Howard said in a statement.
Democratic Legislator Patrick B. Burke of Buffalo expressed alarm Tuesday that the Sheriff’s Office possessed equipment that might allow it to spy on cell phone users within a one-mile radius of the cellphone tracking devices. Burke asked Legislature Chairman John J. Mills, R-Orchard Park, to convene a public hearing to determine how the Sheriff’s Office has been using the equipment and whether there are safeguards in place to ensure the devices are not being misused.
Mills subsequently agreed to put the matter on the agenda of the Public Safety Committee when it meets on Thursday.
The Sheriff’s Office has been using the tracking devices for more than three years. They were requested by the county’s Department of Emergency Services in August 2008 under then-County Executive Chris Collins’ administration. In response, the Legislature unanimously authorized the release of a $283,043 terrorism prevention grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to pay for the devices.
On Friday Howard said the cellular tracking devices have been an invaluable tool for his office, resulting in the location of five missing persons, as well as tracking the location of two suicidal individuals. The devices also helped foil 13 violent felonies while they were in progress and helped in the investigations of four murders, one abduction and a rape.
Burke, responding to Howard’s statement Friday, said the possession of such technology by the Sheriff’s Office is a grave responsibility and that it is lawmakers’ duty to ensure safeguards are in place to protect the rights of citizens against potential abuse.
“I don’t appreciate the sheriff trying to gloss over the seriousness of this matter by bringing up the recent events in the Town of Boston, and ignoring the real issue,” Burke said in a statement.
“I expect that he will be in attendance next Thursday at the Public Safety Committee to personally answer questions from the Legislature regarding the usage history of the devices and proof of the safeguards he has in place to protect the constitutional rights of innocent citizens,” Burke added.
In his statement, Howard vowed to use all legal and Constitutional means to protect the public and his officers.
“An important part of protecting our community and the fine men and women of law enforcement is not to disclose to those who would do us harm, the techniques we utilize to catch them,” Howard said.