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When a teen plays cop

The teenage son of DuPage County Sheriff John Zaruba was too young to vote, buy a beer or work as a deputy in his father’s cop shop.

But that didn’t stop the sheriff’s department from helping Patrick Zaruba, then a 17-year-old high school student, access a law enforcement database with information about every licensed driver in Illinois, as well as potentially sensitive intelligence on gangs, firearms, fugitives and more.

Those were the findings of a 2012 investigation by the Better Government Association and CBS2, which also reported Patrick was allowed to ride along with on-duty deputies, and participate in arrests and other law enforcement activities.

It was not only unprofessional and irresponsible — it exposed DuPage taxpayers to potential multi-million-dollar lawsuits if Patrick’s role-playing led to anyone’s death or serious injury.

The BGA is told Patrick no longer rides along with deputies, but other reforms remain maddeningly elusive. Here’s the rest of the story:

Our 2012 reporting included the filing of a Freedom of Information Act request for records on what people and vehicles Patrick accessed through the Law Enforcement Agencies Data System — LEADS — which is used by about 800 criminal justice agencies around the state to review vital records, including warrants, orders of protection and criminal histories.

Cops routinely peruse the information on their squad-car laptops, but LEADS clients also have access to the National Crime Information Center site, which contains sensitive data on terrorists and individuals who may pose a threat to President Obama and other top U.S. officials.

LEADS is supposed to be used only for law-enforcement purposes, according to the Illinois State Police, the agency that oversees it, but the ISP granted Patrick Zaruba access after the sheriff’s office helped certify him in 2010.

The BGA initially questioned why a high school student like Patrick Zaruba was certified to begin with.

But Sheriff Zaruba wouldn’t talk to us, or disclose how and when his son used the database, and he refused to comply with our FOIA request for documents.

So we filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court in June of 2012, the case was later moved to a DuPage County courtroom at the sheriff’s request, and last month Judge Terence Sheen granted Zaruba’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, agreeing with Zaruba’s assertion that records relating to Patrick’s LEADS searches were protected and couldn’t be disclosed.

Sheen cited the state’s administrative code, which says, “LEADS data shall not be disseminated to any individual or organization that is not legally authorized to have access to the information.”

The BGA, as Sheen notes, isn’t an authorized LEADS user.

True — we originally sought the records in our role as a watchdog organization concerned about who’s policing the police.

In our opinion, Sheriff Zaruba should never have facilitated his son’s certification to use a database with such sensitive information.

And we wanted to know if Patrick abused the privilege by hunting for information about teachers or coaches or other authority figures in his world.

Police departments around the state tell us it’s highly unusual for a teenager, especially one who isn’t a certified police officer, to have LEADS access.

Unless, it turns out, your father is the sheriff.

But according to Judge Sheen, it isn’t the BGA’s job to guard the database.

“There is nothing to prevent the appropriate body, properly authorized to access the LEADS system, from investigating any alleged improper uses,” the judge wrote. “Entities such as the BGA are not the proper organizations to undertake such an investigation because the investigation requires access to sensitive information.”

So who’s watching, then?

In this case, Sheriff Zaruba and his underlings have a blatant conflict of interest.

And the State Police haven’t shown much inclination to get involved.

So we’ll appeal Sheen’s ruling and hope a higher court sees it our way.

Because this happens too often in Illinois — government workers, particularly elected officials, acting like they’re a protected class that’s not accountable to anyone.

We’re going to do everything possible to disabuse them of that misguided notion.

And to keep teenagers from snooping around confidential records intended for law enforcement professionals, not junior G-men.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association.

Email: ashaw@bettergov.org

Twitter: @andyshawbga



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