The Long Beach Police Department has for years used an application that allows officers to message each other with potentially sensitive information before it’s automatically erased, shielding it from detection, according to a report Tuesday by the news network Al Jazeera.
The report, according to attorneys, could have wide-reaching legal implications.
The application Tiger Text was installed on 145 of 291 city-issued police phones in 2014, the city said in a statement Tuesday evening. The application deletes messages after a set period of time, which could shield them from being turned over to opposing attorneys in legal cases or being produced in response to public information requests.
The city said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that it would suspend use of the app, effective immediately, “pending further review of whether the use is consistent with the city’s record retention policy and administrative regulations for the use of mobile devices.”
No other city department besides police use the app, officials said.
The department began using the app when it transitioned to iPhones, which did not have a built-in secure communication feature sufficient for the department’s needs, the statement from city spokesman Kevin Lee said.
“Police Department employees have been trained to and do document any exculpatory/discoverable evidence in a police report or other formal departmental communication,” the statement said.
The application is installed on 145 phones, including the mobile devices of command staff, and specialized details such as homicide and internal affairs.
The Long Beach Police Department released a statement to Al Jazeera saying it uses the Tiger Text application “to communicate confidential crime scene information, victim information, and personnel matters among department management personnel, as well as employees in specialized details.”
A police source told the Post said he’d never seen the app used to intentionally hide evidence and that it’s mostly used for casual conversation, but he acknowledged even the existence of the app on officers’ phones is problematic.
Joshua Piovia-Scott, one of the attorneys who sued the city and police department over the fatal officer-involved shooting of Cal State Long Beach student Feras Morad in 2015, said he and other attorneys were unaware of Tiger Text until the publication of Tuesday’s article.
“If this is true, this could potentially be a huge issue both for civil cases and for criminal cases,” Piovia-Scott told the Post. “The law requires [police] to produce information and documents in response to appropriate discovery requests, which we made a host of in this case.”
A federal jury in July found the officers did not use excessive force in shooting Morad, 20, who had fallen from a second-story window and then struggled with an officer after bystanders called for help. Morad was not armed.
If the officers had any communication about the Morad case on Tiger Text, they should have been required to turn that over—though “there’s no way to tell at this point” whether those discussions happened, Piovia-Scott said.
If a party to a lawsuit fails to turn over information requested by the plaintiff, the judge could impose sanctions, he noted.
Al Jazeera’s investigation found that the Georgia Department of Corrections also began using Tiger Text in 2013. But lawyers for that department quickly decided that its use would likely violate Georgia law, possibly breaching the state’s records retention legislation and most likely leading to court discovery violations.
The Long Beach City Attorney’s office said Wednesday that it was unaware of police using the app and never would’ve recommended it.
Nikhil Ramnaney, a deputy public defender with the Law Offices of the Los Angeles County Public Defender, told Al Jazeera that his office might now be forced to review all Long Beach cases since 2014, adding: “I don’t know what information is in those Tiger Texts, it could be exculpatory, it could lend to practices that are unconstitutional or even illegal.”
Joanna Schwartz, an expert on police litigation at the UCLA School of Law, told Al Jazeera that she believes it is difficult to predict the legal problems that the use of a self-deleting app will bring for the Long Beach Police Department.
“The use of Tiger Text by the police makes it more difficult to bring winning civil cases against them and effectively to defend criminal cases. The immediate question is; is this the kind of police department that the City of Long Beach wants to have?”
Staff writers Jeremiah Dobruck and Melissa Evans contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: This article originally misstated the number of city-issued mobile devices described in Long Beach’s statement. It was also updated Wednesday with a comment from the Long Beach City Attorney’s office.