City Hall

Terabyte by Terabyte, the Dallas Police Data Loss Story Keeps Getting Worse

The Dallas City Council grilled City Manager T.C. Broadnax for not notifying them about data loss sooner.
The Dallas City Council grilled City Manager T.C. Broadnax for not notifying them about data loss sooner. Stephen Young
When the news broke last month, everyone had questions. The Dallas Police Department had lost several terabytes of data, District Attorney John Creuzot announced, and the picture only got grimmer from there.

When the data went missing, entire case files, evidence, crime scene photos and other crucial documents disappeared along with it. Within a week, murder suspect Jonathan Pitts was released from jail because prosecutors were no longer ready for trial. (They've since said that no data related to his case was lost.)

But the problems didn't stop there. This week, Dallas revealed that another 15 terabytes of police and city secretary data had been lost. Altogether, more than 23 terabytes are gone.

City Council member Cara Mendelsohn said she, Mayor Eric Johnson, council member Adam McGough and the DA were notified about the additional lost data on Friday and that the rest of the council was sent a memo about it. As far as Mendelsohn knows, the missing city secretary data hasn't yet affected City Council operations.

"As part of this systematic review, the audit team identified an additional 15 terabytes of missing files from data archives affecting DPD and the City Secretary’s Office," a spokesperson for the city said by email. "The City continues to assess the impact of the compromise on its operations, whether data recovery specialists can recover data from the physical devices on which it had been stored or other systems, and whether any additional systems citywide have been affected. As the City continues this audit, it may find additional files are missing."

Speaking to NBC DFW, Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia said violent crime files weren't affected.

Creuzot, however, said in an emailed statement, “We’re going to look at each case and make certain we have everything in every case.”

Authorities suspect the initial data loss happened when an employee in the Information and Technology Services Department was migrating data between servers this spring. The employee was supposed to take 35 terabytes of police data from an online archive to a physical city drive. The files were from archived data prior to July 2020.

Although the data went missing toward the end of March and in the beginning of April, no one informed the DA’s office until last month. The city manager, assistant city manager, chief financial officer, chief information officer, former council member Jennifer Gates and the police department knew about the data loss months before the DA did.

“The employee lost data while moving files from a cloud-based storage archive to a City server. The appropriate policies and procedures were not followed and consequently, data was deleted,” City Manager T.C. Broadnax said in a memo to the Council. “There was no malice here, nor was there any intent to delay notification to the District Attorney’s (DA) Office and City Council. At the time, we believed the data could be recovered and of the 22 Terabytes of information in question, 14 terabytes were retrieved.”

"The responsibility to communicate did not live up to my expectations or to the council and the community." – City Manager T.C. Broadnax

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Broadnax said he didn't notify them because he didn't know how serious the issue was and thought the data could still be recovered. "The responsibility to communicate did not live up to my expectations or to the council and the community, and I acknowledge we could have done better," he said during a hearing last week.

The data loss left criminal defense attorneys and prosecutors unsure of what files were missing from their cases. According to D Magazine, Elizabeth Reich, the city’s chief financial officer, told City Council in an email on Friday that the IT employee responsible for the loss has since been fired. There was also a criminal investigation into the employee, but no charges were brought.

"Additional information collected during the course of the internal audit demonstrates a pattern of error on the part of the employee which substantiates and justifies the termination action,” Reich told the council.

Asked what Reich meant when she said the employee demonstrated a "pattern of error," the city would only say, "The IT department is completing its review of these incidents and effectuating the appropriate disciplinary action(s) for any involved employees."

Still, it's unclear when the additional 15 terabytes were deleted and under what circumstances. In an emailed statement to the Observer, DPD said: “In collaboration with our City of Dallas Information Technology Systems Department, the Department is assessing the impact of the newly discovered lost data. This lost data is not believed to have been part of the initial process that took place in April of 2021."

Mendelsohn said the additional 15 terabytes were deleted in a separate incident that involved the same IT employee. "There is a comprehensive audit of all departments being conducted," and more incidents of data deletions may be discovered, she said.

Past audits show holes in the way the city and DPD bag up their data.

"Internal controls are inadequate to prevent and detect unauthorized deletions or alterations of [Records Management System] data," according to a 2018 audit of DPD's records management system. "As a result, there is an increased risk that the crime incidents and the associated details could be altered, deleted, or fraudulently manipulated without detection by DPD."

According to the audit, 384 crime reports were deleted between 2014 to 2017, but the police "cannot ascertain which crime reports were legally expunged and which crime reports were unintentionally or willfully deleted from RMS without authorization because audit logs related to these crime reporters were also deleted."

The same audit also found that DPD doesn’t have adequate controls over user access to RMS data. “As a result, DPD cannot prevent unauthorized users from accessing and potentially compromising RMS data without detection,” the audit said.

The city auditor made recommendations on how to address these shortcomings. The city manager signed a memo in 2018 after the audit was released saying he agreed with the recommendations.

A 2009 audit also raised longstanding concerns over the reliability of Dallas’ computer systems. "These issues were identified back in 2004. We're sitting around here in 2009 still having this discussion," then council member Ron Natinksy said that year. 
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Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn