City Hall

After Losing Evidence and Case Files, Dallas Police Waited Months to Tell District Attorney

It's still unclear how a recent data loss will affect pending cases being prosecuted by District Attorney John Creuzot's office.
It's still unclear how a recent data loss will affect pending cases being prosecuted by District Attorney John Creuzot's office. Dallas County District Attorney's Office
Evidence. Case files. Photos, videos, audio recordings and case notes. That's what went missing when the Dallas Police Department accidentally deleted a boatload of data, likely while transferring it to a new network.

It wasn't until last Friday that the Dallas County District Attorney's office realized the files were missing from pending cases in its system. The files are usually transferred from DPS' records to the DA's office for prosecution. But when the DA questioned the police, DPD revealed that the missing records had been deleted around four months ago.

Worse still, DPD and the city's IT department had known about the loss the whole time, but no one had informed the DA.

"My office is now working with the DPD to determine how many cases are affected by the City’s data loss in April," Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot said by email.

In its own email late on Wednesday, the city explained that it had waited for months to inform the DA because they intended "to fully evaluate whether the data was recoverable or not to know the full extent of the problem, if any."

The loss happened during a “data migration of a DPD network drive” between March 31 and April 5. They believe the data is related to offenses from before July 28, 2020. It was all being transferred for long-term storage.

The DA’s office said it had learned 22 terabytes of DPD data were deleted during the migration. About 14 terabytes have since been recovered, but the remainder is still missing “and are believed to be unrecoverable,” according to the DA's office.

“We have asked DPD for a date range of affected cases, to narrow down the scope of potentially impacted cases,” the DA said in a press release on Wednesday. “The City of Dallas is working on a plan to specifically identify affected cases.”

DPD directed the Observer's questions to the city.

However, in a statement to The Dallas Morning News, Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia said his department has "been working with City (Information and Technology Services) to ascertain what occurred, why and how to ensure this doesn’t happen again. I have spoken to DA Creuzot, and we will be working through whatever issues arise."

"How could you know something is missing if it's just never there?" – Rebekah Perlstein, criminal defense attorney

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Although worried the data could be unrecoverable, the city explained that "DPD personnel may have previously uploaded the original source files into their case management system prior to the archive copy deletion."

"It was kind of a shock to hear a law enforcement agency could lose that much information," said Rebekah Perlstein, a criminal defense attorney with the law offices of Scott H. Palmer, P.C. "We don't know if a case we have could be missing case files — videos, reports, photos — any of which could be exculpatory or mitigating to our clients."

Creuzot has instructed every prosecutor to verify all evidence and files were shared with them before being deleted. Additionally, Creuzot said if people think their cases were affected, they should prepare a written request and submit it to the trial prosecutor.

But Perlstein expects that it will be tough to determine what all was lost. "The biggest concern I have is you don't know what you're missing if it's missing," she said. "How could you know something is missing if it's just never there?"

According to the city, they still have metadata from the lost files, which should help determine what all is missing. The city said it has already taken steps to prevent this from happening in the future. They'll now require two people to oversee the migration of files and storage settings have been changed to keep deleted filed for 14 days before permanent deletion.

Creuzot said, "At this time, it is too soon to estimate how many cases will be affected and what the impact will be on those individual cases. Chief Garcia and I have been in constant communication on this over the past few days and are committed to ensuring justice is served on each case."

An audit earlier this year of how DPD stores evidence and other found property determined the department uses outdated and incomplete operating procedures and stores property and evidence at unsuitable locations.

The city auditor wants the police department to improve its record-keeping procedures, implement an automated system to notice when an item can be reviewed for potential release and ensure property and evidence are protected from theft, tampering and environmental exposure at storage locations located elsewhere. 
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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