Flickr image courtesy Steve Mays

In February of 2009, Gary Waters went to court in Brooklyn, accused of possessing a loaded 9mm handgun and bundle of ammo while on parole for burglary. It looked like a simple case. But Waters escaped the charge. Why?

The NYPD officer named Vaughan Ettienne who arrested Waters had a MySpace persona defense attorneys seized on as evidence of his tendency toward police misconduct. Ettienne’s social-media profile allegedly described his mood as “devious,” and in a status update, he claimed to watch the movie “Training Day” for brushing up on “proper police procedure.”

The problem: “Training Day” is about violent and corrupt detectives in Los Angeles who wield bogus search warrants and deploy vigilante street justice. In other postings, Ettienne appeared to offer advice on how to assault detained suspects, according to the New York Times:

The man on trial claimed that Officer Ettienne and his partner stopped him, beat him and then planted a gun on him to justify breaking three of his ribs. Suddenly, Officer Ettienne was being held to the words that he wrote in cyberspace.

Law enforcement leaders don’t want such mistakes to be repeated. What’s interesting is how authorities are going about teaching cops to stay quiet online.

An intelligence memo marked “for official use only” that leaked onto the Internet earlier this month warns officers against such Internet blunders, informing them that criminal defense lawyers will use unsavory remarks as a strategy to spring their clients from custody, just like the Gary Waters case.

Noteworthy about the document is that it came from a so-called fusion center in the nation’s capitol region known as the Washington Regional Threat and Analysis Center. Over 70 fusion centers now exist nationwide, with some states having more than one. The federal government has pumped $426 million into them since 2004 through homeland security grants, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Motivated by the Sept. 11 hijackings, the initial goal of fusion centers was to stop attacks where possible before they occur by helping local and federal officials collect, analyze and share information about possible terrorist and criminal threats. They’ve since become increasingly involved in everyday law enforcement activities.

“Part of the problem with fusion centers is their lack of a distinct mission,” said Michael German, a former FBI agent who later took the unlikely job of policy counsel for the ACLU. “If there was a specific security mission, it would be hard to write a memo like this.”

Perils of Social Networking

Civil libertarians are more concerned with fusion centers compiling vast oceans of personal information on Americans not suspected of committing any crimes. But the purpose of fusion centers isn’t always clear either, and now, it seems, they’re aiding police with the fundamentals of courtroom strategy, providing officers with arguably logical advice they should receive as cadets.

The bulletin points to examples of police raising questions about their own credibility with scandalous comments made on social-media sites. It instructs officers to think before they speak on the web:

In law enforcement work, there are no second chances when it comes to one’s integrity, and social network postings are available for the world to see and use, even when made in jest. So think through the significance and possible consequences of all postings before you hit the enter button and preserve them on a digital server for all of eternity.

Lingering is the question of whether rules against Facebook shenanigans could just as easily be handed down by police department superiors without the need for a sophisticated and expensive intelligence fusion center. That’s only if public officials need to be reminded in the first place that some activity online is simply a bad idea.

The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, which is attached to the Regional Threat and Analysis Center, did not return calls seeking comment. An official at the fusion center itself provided answers in an email, but after doing so, she insisted that her name not be used. Here’s what the email said:

In the past two years, police officers and intelligence personnel have been called out in the open media for inappropriate comments, photos and divulging sensitive homeland security and other information on social networking sites, which brought discredit to their agencies and compromised security protocols. Successful prosecution of crime and terrorism cases requires that government officials behave in a manner [that] does not impeach their integrity or the integrity of their agency. This bulletin is a reminder to officers who investigate and arrest persons for crime and terrorism that integrity is important on-and-off duty.

In a bid to assure the public that fusion centers are contributing meaningfully to the war on terror, the Department of Homeland Security this month released a list of “success stories.” Among the examples cited, several fusion centers coordinated their efforts to produce information on a suspicious trailer headed toward Times Square. It turned out to be a false alarm, however.

In another instance, fusion center officials in Florida conducted database checks on two Egyptians ultimately accused of transporting explosives without permits. One was sentenced in 2008 to 15 years in prison after he pled guilty to supporting terrorism.

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G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED,, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.