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By now you've likely heard about the story of the NYPD cop who the FBI says hatched an elaborate and horrifying plot to kidnap, torture, cook and eat 100 women, at least ten of whom he knew personally.
According to the FBI, Gilberto Valle, a 28 year old NYPD officer from Queens, "allegedly conspired with more than one individual to kidnap, rape, torture, kill, cook, and cannibalize a number of women, and he used the NCIC database to obtain information about a specific woman."
The criminal complaint against Valle doesn't describe exactly how the FBI discovered his plans. A press release on the FBI's website says that in September 2012 the bureau "learned that Valle was sending e-mail and instant messages discussing plans with multiple co-conspirators to kidnap, rape, torture, kill, cook, and cannibalize a number of women." There is no mention of how agents "learned" about these messages, although it references a co-conspirator he communicated with is "not named as a defendant herein," suggesting it's possible that Valle's co-conspirator had second thoughts and blew the whistle on their plans and so won't be charged as long as he cooperates with authorities.
From the FBI's press release:
On May 31, 2012, Valle accessed the NCIC database and obtained information about a woman whose name matched the name of one of the individual files created by Valle (Victim-3), and stored the information on the computer. Valle did not have authorization to perform that search or to access any information about Victim-3.
The criminal complaint doesn't describe why Valle's search of NCIC was illegal. It could have been because Valle was on some kind of disciplinary probation or because he searched for information not related to any investigation and instead, in furtherance of criminal activity. Nonetheless, the incident makes clear what we already know: the NYPD is composed of human beings who do not always exercise good judgment and, given how much power is vested in them, need external monitors.
Again, we do not yet know how the FBI "learned" about Valle's email messages describing his "blueprint" for torture and murder on a vast scale. As a result, we don't know if internal auditing mechanisms might have caught Valle even if the FBI hadn't been involved. But this incident makes clear something we already knew: police make mistakes and sometimes break the law. The difference between us lowly citizens and the police, however, is that the latter have access to extremely personal information about all of us via law enforcement and intelligence databases — as well as guns, the right to exercise violence and the power to lock us up.
Community groups are calling for the city to install an inspector general to provide independent oversight of the NYPD's actions, programs and policies. Officer Valle's accessing of information in the NCIC towards the end of allegedly gathering information about his intended victims demonstrates the need for precisely this kind of outside oversight.
Mayor Bloomberg should heed those community calls for an independent inspector general. Police officers can't always be trusted to act appropriately, and given all the power vested in them, would benefit from someone outside the department looking over their shoulders. Likewise, the NYPD as an institution is not and mustn't act as if it is above the law.