Dallas Cops' Crappy New Software Has Also Been Cutting Off the Public's Access to Crime Reports

Many homeowners on Swiss Avenue have been victims of patio furniture theft this summer. Exactly how many items of furniture were stolen, who the criminals are and who complained about it remain a mystery. There are no reports. We just know there were patio furniture thefts because people are saying so.

The situation is "an epidemic," the president of the Swiss Avenue Historic told NBC.

Dallas Police Deputy Chief Gary Tittle added in comments to The Dallas Morning News that "it really jumped on our radar about a month ago."

But we here at Unfair Park will not report on the patio furniture thefts until we get the crime reports telling the full story. Where are the reports? Not with us. These, along with the reports for every crime that occurred this summer, are currently lost in the great Dallas Police Department Software Transition of 2014.

Cops' unfamiliarity with their new software system became apparent in the middle of June, when announced that they accidentally set free three inmates who weren't supposed to go free. The new software system did it, they said.

Major Scott Bratcher explained in a somber news conference that "this system is probably the greatest change in the way we do things in the police department." (We assume he was also including the department's attempts to curb officer-involved shootings in that broad brushstroke.) "We're changing the way we report every incident, the way we categorize the information and the way we manage our cases from here on out. And it all changed in one minute."

The transition isn't just freeing inmates. It's also cutting off the public's ability to browse crime reports. We all used to be able to hop on the Dallas Police Department's website and search crimes with as little information as a date or a street name. But now, if you try searching the site for any crimes that occurred after June 1, it's blank. Even cops are having trouble accessing it from their own portals.

A few days ago, we called the department's media line to get more information about a shooting that happened during a robbery, briefly described in a Dallas Morning News story.

The nice officer who answered the phone asked for a report number; we didn't have it. We gave her the address instead. She said she'd try to look up the crime that way then give a call back. "We do have access, it just takes way longer than what it used to," she said.

About 10 minutes later, she called back as promised but couldn't locate the address initially. Eventually she found a match. The detective arrived on the scene, she read from the report. "He met with the officers at scene and ... Where is the narrative?" There was no narrative, it turned out. The report wasn't done yet, after all, and she had nothing left to read us.

What about the patio furniture thefts? With no date other than after June 1, could she locate some of the patio furniture theft crime reports and read us all the details over the phone? "That's going to take a lot longer," she explained, referring us to Sergeant Warren Mitchell. He said we'd need to file an open records request since it would take officers considerable time to browse their reports searching for patio furniture. We've decided not to do that.

He also referred us to a blog post published on the Dallas Police Department site on July 1, the date the kinks in the system were supposedly scheduled to be smoothed over. It was not encouraging:

We understand that it is important for watch groups, the media, and the general public as a whole to access report information online in a timely manner. However, because of some process issues as well as unfamiliarity with a new system, we have run into some unexpected delays.

Maybe the kinks will be worked out by August 1, but no one can say for certain yet, and Dallas doesn't appear to be breaking public records law right now

"Agencies don't really have a requirement to affirmatively release information until someone requests it," Texas Civil Rights Project staff attorney Brian McGiverin tells Unfair Park. Hopefully the Dallas Police Department won't get any ideas from the other police agencies that demand you show up in person and make a request in writing before accessing a report.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Amy Martyn
Contact: Amy Martyn