Dallas Officials Under Fire Over Police Data Loss Notification Delay

Defense Attorneys say the police evidence scandal 20 years ago should have been a lesson

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Dallas City Council members Thursday grilled top city officials over a massive loss of police data. They were especially unhappy about the 4-month delay in sharing news of the loss.

Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson requested the special joint meeting of the City Council Public Safety and Government Performance Committees to get to the bottom of the problems after he learned of the data loss and notification delay earlier this month.

The city’s Chief Information Officer Bill Zielenski said an employee mistakenly launched the deletion of a huge archive file on March 31.

Within days, Zielenski said the mistake was discovered and much of the data was restored. 

But defense attorneys were not told of the loss until Wednesday, Aug. 11. District Attorney John Creuzot made it public that day when he was officially notified.

Criminal Defense Attorney Russell Wilson, a former prosecutor, said the loss of police data could threaten many cases.

“It essentially has the potential to undermine the whole goal of the system,” Wilson said. “I certainly think that you must have prompt disclosure and it’s unclear why that did not occur here.”

Dallas City Council members are upset that most of them learned about the data issue from the media long after the loss and not from city officials much sooner.

Councilman Adam McGough, the current Public Safety Committee Chairman, was a city prosecutor before he was elected to his council seat.

“I’ve been with the city 16 years and one of the rules was no surprises, certainly not surprises like this. And so I expect that this will not happen again,” McGough said.

Officials said the loss was limited to archive data from before July 2020 that had not been accessed by detectives for more than 6 months. Officials said they hoped more of it would be recovered before it grew to such a large issue.

Monday, the release of murder suspect Jonathan Pitts by a judge over the data loss controversy added urgency to the concerns.

Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia said detectives have verified that they do have data for Pitts’ case and it will be pursued. Garcia said police are still trying to assess which other cases may be missing data and what the impact will be.

“We just didn't know what we didn't know and we didn't want to yell fire until we knew the extent of what's going on,” Garcia said.

City Manager T.C. Broadnax received much of the pressure from council members Thursday. 

“We just did not as a team communicate horizontally or vertically the way we should,” Broadnax said.

The city manager said he was first told about the issue in April and was left with the impression that it was a small issue that would be solved.

“It did not resonate with me to reach out and share a conversation that was had with a staff member,” Broadnax said. “When I was informed, I was told it was a data loss, they were working to recover it.”

The only city council member notified initially was former Public Safety Chair Jennifer Gates. Her term ended in June.

At the beginning of August, Broadnax and other top staff members were told the problem had not been solved. They decided city council members should be notified in an executive session that was scheduled for Aug. 18. 

That meeting occurred Wednesday, but after news of the problem was already out from the District Attorney’s office.

“This is a setback,” Council Member Gay Donnell Willis said. “It’s in the public arena. There’s trust inside the building that’s been violated. And we just don’t need any more of this in the community”

Criminal Defense Attorney Dan Haygood said authorities are correct to question the notification delay.

“That would be very disturbing to me if I was the responsible authority,” Haygood said.

Haygood was appointed as the special prosecutor in the 2001 Dallas Police fake drug scandal.

Dozens of immigrants were wrongfully jailed over planted evidence that turned out to be pool chalk by Dallas officers who used highly paid informants.

Haygood said police were slow to reveal the truth to defense attorneys at that time in a series of events that seem to have been forgotten.

“Yes, I think, if people had been mindful of the lessons from the fake drug case, they would have been much more timely in the notification of responsible authorities,” Haygood said.

A former officer was sentenced to 10 years in prison in the fake drug case over what was deemed to be intentional wrongdoing.

In this case, officials said an employee who made the data error has been cleared of any criminal intent, but is still on administrative leave, pending possible city discipline.

Zielenski said procedural changes have already been made to guard against future data deletion mistakes. 

City council members are also demanding other improvements from city management.

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