King County, WA, severs its connection with a federal information sharing system

Does guarding illegal immigrants from ICE override essential law enforcement?

The Law Enforcement Information Exchange, or LInX, is a collaborative regional information sharing system created and maintained by the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS). LInX that enables investigators to conduct data searches across jurisdictional boundaries, helping them to prevent, stop and solve crimes.

Participating agencies feed information into the federal data warehouse daily, in return for access. In 2007, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) began sharing investigative files with LInX Northwest, which serves law enforcement agencies in the states of Washington and Oregon.

LInX regions
This map of LInX regions is from a brochure published in 2019 by Northrop Grumman, which markets LInX. There are currently fourteen LInX geographical regions. LInX integrates with the FBI’s National Data Exchange, called N-DEx.

According to Scott Somers, the undersheriff in King County, Washington (in which the county seat is Seattle), detectives there routinely contribute police reports and run queries through Northwest LInX, and investigators use the system multiple times daily to identify suspects and learn to recognize criminal patterns established across hundreds of jurisdictions throughout the nation.

“Scandal” in King County, Washington

In February of 2018, King County enacted a local ordinance prohibiting county agents and employees from granting federal immigration agencies access to county facilities, property, equipment or databases, unless the federal authorities produced a judicial criminal warrant. It seems that the only online version of this ordinance is on the website of an organization that calls itself the Government Alliance on Race and Equity.

The King County Auditor's Office describes its purpose as to advise the County Council and the heads of executive agencies about ways to make government more efficient, effective, and equitable. Evidently, Seattle and its surroundings are of the opinion that illegal immigrants are also entitled to those services. On July 9, the King County Auditor's Office produced a report called ICE Access to County Data Shows Privacy Program Gaps.

The auditors reported finding that ICE agents had access to nonpublic information about people arrested and booked by county agencies, putting residents at increased risk of deportation. The county jail and the King County Sheriff’s Office did not appropriately restrict access to nonpublic information to ensure that it was not used for civil immigration enforcement.

Communication Breakdown: Sharing between LInX and the King County Sheriff’s Office is terminated

On Wednesday, August 14, the staff at the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) received an email from the Northwest LInX Regional Program Manager, informing them that the KCSO had stopped sharing records, which violates the Memorandum of Understanding between the KCSO and LInX. Therefore, all KSCO accounts would be terminated.

On the following day, Undersheriff Scott Somers sent an email to employees explaining that the Sheriff’s Office had tried to work with LInX and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to develop firewalls preventing ICE from accessing non-public information collected by law enforcement agencies. Granting such access to ICE would, Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht feared, violate the King County ordinance.

Having failed to create the firewalls, continued Somers, “We had no alternative other than to terminate our membership and information sharing with LInX.”

Efforts are being made to restore the lost connection

On August 26, it was revealed that King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht had eliminated access to LInX without consulting with the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, to confirm that the arrangement with LInX violates any King County ordinance. The King County Council was also not consulted before the decision was made.

On Friday, August 23, King County Council Member Rod Dembowski released the following statement:

The Council is working with the Sheriff to better understand the reasons for her decision to terminate access to the LinX database, which was made without consultation with or advance notice to the Council. Upon review of the LinX “Memorandum of Understanding” among database participants, and initial discussions with the Sheriff’s office and legal counsel, I don’t believe the action taken by the Sheriff was required by the ordinance. I hope that the Sheriff will restore access for our deputies to the LinX database promptly.

It appears that the “sheriff” panicked. Efforts are now being made to restore access to LInX, as soon as possible.