Flickr images of July 8 Oscar Grant verdict protests in Oakland, Calif., courtesy Keoki Seu and Jonathan McIntosh.

Local police in the United States are using wiretaps with greater frequency to capture incriminating conversations. Arizona is no exception, reporters there discovered Dec. 15. The Arizona Daily Star finds that although wiretaps are costly and time consuming, they’re increasingly popular among investigators because “live recordings pack a punch in the courtroom that can’t be matched by regular testimony.”

The number of wiretaps authorized by judges last year in Arizona doubled to 55. But states like California, New York and New Jersey use far more. Police in those three states sought a total of 1,216 combined last year. Nationally, no wiretaps were rejected by a judge in 2009. Arizona did use wiretaps in one case that turned out to be wildly successful: 169 arrests and 116 convictions. Such a high number is very uncommon, however. According to the Daily Star:

Critics of wiretapping say law enforcement agencies seem to be rushing to use them when traditional law enforcement tactics would suffice. That should worry everyone, [Tucson defense attorney Walter] Nash said, considering it’s so invasive. ‘I don’t break any laws but – I don’t know about you – I would be mighty uncomfortable knowing somebody is listening to my conversation,’ Nash said.

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Authorities in Wisconsin have found another use for high-tech and expensive robots communities began purchasing after Sept. 11 to dismantle dangerous explosives. A Remotec Andros F6A approached two suspects sitting in a stolen SUV on the shoulder of a Milwaukee highway earlier this month. It was used to safely communicate with the suspects and punch a hole through the rear window, which a police officer then used to toss in a tear-gas canister, ending a six-hour standoff.

Law enforcement agencies big and small across the country have used federal homeland security grants Congress handed out following the Sept. 11 hijackings to buy the robots, and a popular manufacturer of them is the defense mega-contractor Northrop Grumman, maker of the F6A.

The Oregon State Police spent at least $427,000 on two robots. We reported last year that the safety equipment wasn’t deployed to examine and defuse a suspicious container during a December 2008 incident. The device exploded, killing two police officers and badly injuring a third.

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A wide and peculiar array of local and federal law enforcement agencies was involved in monitoring San Francisco Bay Area protesters who filled the streets in reaction to the officer-involved shooting of public transit passenger Oscar Grant. Internal Oakland Police Department documents obtained by a Bay Area radio station show agencies as varied as the FBI, Secret Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration were present at the protests. Personnel helped collect video surveillance of the demonstrators and track the movement of “anarchists” dressed in red and black clothing that authorities believed would commit acts of violence and vandalism.

A jury convicted Bay Area Rapid Transit officer Johannes Mehserle of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting of Grant, who was unarmed and facedown at the time of the incident on New Year’s Day in 2009. Mehserle argued he had confused a Taser with his gun. He was sentenced to two years in prison, which stunned critics of the killing. They believed Mehserle deserved a tougher punishment, and many of them protested in Oakland at the time of his July conviction. According to KALW News:

In a running police log from the July 8 protests and in emails exchanged between OPD command staff in the days prior, there is extensive mention of potential acts of property destruction and violence by ‘anarchists.’ The log was later forwarded to the Department of Homeland Security’s National Operations Center. ‘They were interested in the event,’ said [Oakland Police Captain David] Downing.

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Hackers could easily access government computer systems in Colorado containing sensitive personal information that belongs to taxpayers, auditors discovered in a report released this month. The discovery was made by a firm hired to test the systems, which found “significant vulnerabilities” across state government allowing investigators to penetrate records listing confidential data such as social security numbers, birth dates and income figures.

From the Denver Post:

Some of the results of the covert operation were so sensitive that lawmakers heard them in a closed session. But even the public parts of the audit showed how easy it was to get into state systems. In some cases, testers simply guessed obvious usernames and passwords, and in others, they used default usernames and passwords that system administrators never changed.

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An advisory commission in Austin, Texas, is recommending that local elected officials not permit controversial X-ray body scanners and intrusive pat-down searches to be used at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The full-body imagers are expected to be deployed in Austin next year by the federal Transportation Security Administration, but the commission’s appointees voted unanimously to oppose the technology, which enables security screeners to see beneath the clothing of travelers.

A resolution from the commission said the imagers and pat-down searches “have been the source of derision, ridicule [and] embarrassment.” Security procedures at a major airport can’t be altered by a mere advisory commission made up of local appointees. But an experienced airline pilot and commission member who sponsored the resolution, Robert Torn, told the Austin American-Statesman that Congress could direct the TSA to change its policies if lawmakers heard enough complaints from constituents. Torn argues that body scanners violate the Constitution, create potential health hazards and hold up travelers.

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, Wired.com, 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.