CLEARWATER — The Clearwater Police Department will once again join forces with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s electronic surveillance teams.
The City Council voted unanimously June 5 to let the Clearwater police sign another three-year, mutual aid agreement with FDLE that includes the use of FDLE covert camera systems, global positioning satellite tracking equipment, and other digital tools that let investigators zoom in and heighten images or isolate and clarify audio signals.
The agreement gives Clearwater and other police departments that lack sophisticated electronic surveillance equipment the resources to eavesdrop, track suspects, and collect evidence to battle ongoing criminal enterprises.
“Based on the little frequency that we use that equipment, it would not be cost-effective for individual municipalities and law enforcement agencies to acquire it,” said Clearwater’s deputy police chief, Eric Gandy. He is operations chief of the department’s three divisions: patrol, criminal investigations, and support services.
The agreement — which comes into effect when a case could cross jurisdictional lines — also gives Clearwater the use of FDLE investigators skilled in the installation of Wi-Fi cameras and other eavesdropping equipment. FDLE also will install and monitor vehicle-tracking devices, locate and track cellphones and other wireless devices via cell towers; and perform audio and video enhancement when necessary, the six-page contract states.
FDLE and Clearwater police team members “must understand the lawful use of the surveillance equipment before using it in the field.”
Police departments continually train their investigators to gather evidence from suspects’ cell phone contact list, emails, texts, and voice messages. Other evidence can be gathered from other digital objects, such as children’s Wi-Fi toys, and other internet-linked household objects like Amazon Alexa.
The FDLE-Clearwater agreement, however, focuses on electronic surveillance during criminal investigations, and police must first obtain a wiretap order before eavesdropping on phone conversations. Based in Glynco, Georgia, the Florida Law Enforcement Training Center has for years offered investigators continuing education in digital evidence gathering. Its Covert Electronic Surveillance Program for instance, teaches officers how to use various types of audio and video surveillance devices, even teaching them how to build covert audio and video concealments.
Police must show probable cause before a judge gives them permission to use hidden cameras or microphones to record suspects.
‘There are certain situations where you would use human surveillance, human intelligence gathering, or open source,” Gandy said. “These do not require a judge’s order. However, a wiretap or something of that nature, that has to be ordered by a court.”
Clearwater police have used FDLE equipment in the past for large investigations, he said.
“We entered into a mutual aid agreement with FDLE back in 2015, and we had some human trafficking cases. These cases were resolved through investigative techniques and wiretaps. And in one case, the court heard all the evidence, issued the (wiretap) order and we were able to capture the phone conversations pertaining to human trafficking. We took the suspect into custody.”
The Clearwater Area Task Force on Human Trafficking at the Clearwater Police Department was designed to develop strategic collaboration among law enforcement agencies, among other things.
The department considers the human traffickers the criminals and treats young children as the victims.
“Human trafficking is when a person uses threats of violence, uses violence itself, drug addiction or other force to control a human being’s body and make them do things they ordinarily wouldn’t do,” he said.
In January, St. Petersburg Police arrested five men and one woman after an eight-month long human trafficking investigation. Police told reporters the adults used Discord, an online gaming app that lets users communicate directly with each other. The app was used to coordinate picking the teen up and driving him to St. Petersburg. His mother had declared him missing from their Louisiana home.
“Officers cannot listen in on or filter cell phone calls between people trying to connect for drugs in a high drug area unless they have a warrant to do so,” he said.
It’s not always easy to find someone who has threatened suicide or might be planning a mass shooting, Gandy said.
“The circumstances have to be just right, the cell provider has to have that capability and it must be done in a timely manner,” he said. “There are privacy considerations in those instances, too. Someone has to be known to be a danger to himself or as ‘missing endangered’ — exigent circumstances — and we could ping that phone. I can’t speculate what other agencies do.”
Workplace and school shooting suspects often make their intentions known on Facebook or other social media platform, but police can’t simply cast a warrantless net to determine who’s posting what online, Gandy said.
“There are 2.5 billion daily Facebook users, do you really think we have any capability to monitor individual posts?” he said. “You’re talking about billions of posts. If he’s openly posting so the public can consume that data, or we get tipped off, ‘Hey he’s posting this on an open forum,’ you can go and look at that. If a (potential shooter) has his Facebook setting on private and no one divulges anything, you will never know until after the fact.”
According to Gandy, the public perception “that all of our texts and emails are scanned and screened, that’s just not the case, particularly with local law enforcement,” he said. “We don’t just blindly look and hope that we come across something.”
The agreement for electronic surveillance cooperation between FDLE and Clearwater lasts until February 2022.