Police defend using app that deleted messages, but admit there may be better options

Long Beach police brass said Wednesday they were shocked by the blowback the department received after an Al Jazeera report revealed dozens of officers had been issued a communications app that automatically deleted messages after five days.

Because of the response, the department has stopped using the app—called Tiger Text—and is reviewing its protocols for communications and retaining records, Chief Robert Luna said.

“The purpose for doing that is we want to dispel a lot of the concerns that are out there about the fact that we’re trying to hide something or we’re doing this because we don’t want the public to know,” Luna said.

The Al Jazeera report cited unnamed officers alleging they’d been told by supervisors to use the Tiger Text app for conversations they didn’t want to come out in court, an accusation that was met with furor from defense attorneys and lawyers who have sued the city over police shootings.

Luna and other high-ranking LBPD officials said Wednesday that this was never the department’s intent for Tiger Text.

They said it was adopted as a secure messaging system that simply had a side-effect of deleting messages after a short period.

“I believe that it was a byproduct of the system,” LBPD Deputy Chief Richard Conant said. “The main purpose of it was encrypted communication, not [that] we went out and sought something that would delete communication.”

The department said it found Tiger Text after it shifted to iPhones around 2014 and wanted a replacement for the secure messaging system built into BlackBerry phones.

“It’s something institutionally we had—at least a small group of us had—become very comfortable using, and when we stop and look at it from a different perspective, we’re saying, hey we need to change the way this looks and look for different options to accomplish the same thing,” LBPD Commander Erik Herzog said.

Police said they’re still looking into who suggested using Tiger Text and who approved the decision. Luna said he doesn’t yet know why the department didn’t seek approval from the City Attorney’s office to use the app.

Long Beach City Attorney Charlie Parkin told the Long Beach Post that he had no idea the department was using Tiger Text and he never would’ve recommended a system that automatically deletes messages.

The District Attorney’s office was not able to immediately answer questions about whether it knew about Tiger Text and whether the app hindered prosecutors’ ability to turn over relevant evidence to defense attorneys.

Lawyers who have recently sued Long Beach over police shootings said the use of Tiger Text makes it impossible to know whether the department revealed all the information it was legally required to as part of the court process.

“We want our law enforcement departments and officers to be transparent and accountable and this seems to be something that flies directly in the face of that,” said Joshua Piovia-Scott who represented the family of Feras Morad, a Cal State Long Beach student who was fatally shot by police in 2015.

Luna compared a police officer using Tiger Text to a police officer throwing out a hand-written note that he no longer needed. Anything relevant to the case ends up documented in a police report, he said.

“You’re going to put the relevant stuff that you believe has something to do with the case in the report and the rest of it is going to get discarded,” he said. “We do that all the time.”

Luna showed reporters an example of a Tiger Text message sent to him recently, but asked that screenshots of it not be published.

In the message, LBPD Commander Michael Lewis tells other high-ranking officers some preliminary information about a man who died in police custody Monday and what the officer found in the man’s Belmont Shore home. That type of information is what Tiger Text was used for, according to Luna.

“Once we get the solid information, it goes into the report,” he said. “So some will argue, well why do you delete that? At least preliminarily when we were doing this, I didn’t think we needed to retain information like that.”

There were no firm guidelines on how or when to use Tiger Text, according to police. Sometimes the decision came down to preference.

Herzog said he would turn to Tiger Text because it continued alerting the recipient until he or she viewed the message.

Police estimated fewer than 100 employees actually had the app on their phones. They were higher-ranking officers or those in specialized details like homicide or internal affairs, they said.

In a statement Tuesday, Long Beach said its police department was the only one that used Tiger Text, but police said Wednesday that they’re aware of other departments that use similar technology. They declined to say which ones.

“We’re not the only ones doing this,” Luna said.

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Jeremiah Dobruck is the breaking news editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his journalism career in 2007 as an intern at Palos Verdes Peninsula News and has worked for The Forum Newsgroup in New York City, the Daily Pilot and the Press-Telegram. He lives in Torrance with his wife, Lindsey, and their two young children, Paul and Simon.
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