February 24, 2023
Dallas police are at risk of being in violation of evidence laws after officers improperly stored more than 52,000 digital records, according to interviews and internal communications obtained by The Dallas Morning News.
The records may include digital evidence for court cases, police said, which could mean that information wasn't provided to lawyers as required by state law. The Richard Miles Act, a 2021 state law named for a Dallas man wrongfully convicted of murder, mandates police agencies verify that they turned over all evidence when filing cases with prosecutors. If police discover more evidence later, they must immediately turn it over.
Police said the records are predominantly videos like patrol officers' body cameras, vehicle camera recordings and footage from interview rooms that weren't categorized and tagged in the department's server when they were uploaded. If video footage isn't categorized or tagged properly, it could be automatically deleted. If it's not categorized at all, the file stays on the server but becomes very difficult to find, police said.
Dallas police Chief Eddie García said the department became aware of the uncategorized files in November after an internal audit. There were 89,396 uncategorized files in November, police said. That number dropped to 64,626 by Feb. 5 and is now about 52,000. Police said DPD has more than 3.8 million files in the server that date back to 2016, which means only about 1.4% remain uncategorized.
Officers are now sifting through the records to fix the issue, police said.
"Some of those digital records that are untagged could have just been either a test video or a simple call for service where no action was taken," García said. "So not all of those records are digital evidence. It could have been the myriad of calls that we respond to that no arrest was made and no report was done."
Police did not say whether any of the 52,000 records may also include evidence for a murder, use-of-force cases or other serious offenses like violent crime.
Police said they do not have a separate category in their server for "no action" calls to prevent a buildup of large amounts of files. Even if no action was taken as a result of a call, police are required to save the records for at least 90 days. The footage could still include someone who was briefly detained if an officer suspected criminal conduct, even if they weren't arrested.
Defense lawyer Cheryl Wattley, who was involved in Richard Miles' appeal, said properly storing and cataloging evidence is fundamental to the integrity of the criminal justice process. Miles was exonerated after the discovery of a memo in the police department's possession that implicated another man. Prosecutors said they weren't made aware of the memo before Miles' trial.
"We want the people who violate the laws to be appropriately addressed," Wattley said. "We don't want those who haven't done anything to be inappropriately caught up, and that goes back to the integrity of the information."
Just last week, a Dallas murder case was thrown into jeopardy because evidence wasn't stored properly. A three-day court hearing revealed 18 videos or photos were deleted in accordance with the department's retention policies because the lead detective did not save them. A state district judge is deciding whether to dismiss the case as a result.
Issues regarding the city's and DPD's storage and preservation of evidence have come up multiple times over the last several years. The city's storage system for police files came under scrutiny in August 2021, when lawyers were alarmed to learn that a city information technology employee lost millions of police files including videos and audio recordings when he improperly moved evidence between systems. The IT worker was fired.
Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot said at the time that if the Richard Miles Act were in place, the deletion would not have caused so much alarm. The law went into effect in September of that year.
Also in September 2021, a top police official said the department didn't have a universal policy for retaining documents, videos and other files or checks to make sure existing policies are adhered to. Dallas police said the department would create a five-year plan with IT and other city staff to streamline and create uniform policies for how DPD gathers and stores evidence files. Police said Monday that plan is still in the works.
Police officers are required by department policy to tag and categorize video footage at the end of each of their shifts to ensure information that could be needed for cases isn't deleted.
The department also has supervisory mechanisms in place to ensure officers categorize the videos each month. Patrol supervisors choose two days a month to review videos submitted by their officers on those two days as an internal audit, then sign off attesting that their officers' videos are categorized appropriately, police said.
Asked why the policies did not catch the uncategorized videos, police spokeswoman Kristin Lowman said most files in the server were categorized and, since the audit, "steps have been taken to ensure further compliance by department members, and to tag the files appropriately." She did not detail those steps.
The chief said there are likely a few reasons officers didn't categorize the files after their shifts.
"Oftentimes, you know, if officers are going call to call to call and they're very, very busy, they may not have time at that one moment in time to tag a video before they have to go on to the next call," García said. "But again, these are things that our internal audits — that, again, we started late last year — we'll be able to delve through that and fix the issue."
Officers were directed to sort through the files and provide status updates by the end of last week, according to an email sent Feb. 13 to commanders by Dallas police Assistant Chief Mike Igo, who oversees patrol.
Igo told his majors and deputy chiefs in the email, which was obtained by The News, that the department "was not in compliance with the Richard Miles/Michael Morton acts." (The Michael Morton Act mandates prosecutors turn over all their evidence to defense lawyers.)
An internal police spreadsheet obtained by The News showed that thousands of uncategorized digital files were discovered in every Dallas police patrol division. A few hundred also were uncategorized in DPD's traffic and tactical response and support units.
In an interview last week, Igo said some of the uncategorized files may be digital evidence that could be used in cases, but it's not clear. He said if he reworded his email, he'd say the files may have implications for cases under the two laws, rather than DPD isn't in compliance with them.
"The point of that email was to make sure that I got everyone's attention," Igo said.
Wattley said there are many reasons information that could be related to criminal prosecutions must be properly stored and easily retrievable. It's critical that attorneys have access to and knowledge of "all of the information" that's been gathered by police, she said.
She expressed concern about DPD's attempts to retag and categorize all of its records, particularly since the footage may date back several years.
"When they say, 'We'll go back and tag,' immediately, I'm curious as to what does that mean and how is that different than what they would have expected to have been done in the first place?" Wattley said. "Does that mean less content? Does that mean less detail? Does that mean less accuracy? I mean, what does that mean?"
Lowman, the police spokeswoman, said: "We cannot speculate as to how much an officer may or may not remember regarding a call or file, however, there are supporting documents that can assist in the file review."
García has previously remarked about how imperative it is that body cameras are utilized according to policy and in accordance with Texas law. In August, he implemented a new policy that officers wear the cameras for off-duty jobs, not just while on duty.
The use of body cameras was regarded by DPD leaders as a win for transparency and also a way to protect officers since the footage can often clear officers of wrongdoing. But it has also led to new challenges for police across the country due to the massive amount of files that need to be audited and tracked — and possible breakdowns in oversight and maintenance of the system, such as what occurred in Dallas in 2021.
Other evidence issues
The concerns about uncategorized records came just as a murder investigation was thrown into question in a Dallas County courtroom last week because a detective failed to properly save video evidence.
Dallas police and Dallas County prosecutors had to answer to a judge for why hundreds of videos and photos weren't turned over until just days before a trial was scheduled to start Jan. 23 for Nina Marano. Marano is charged in the slaying of Marisela Botello Valadez, a Seattle woman killed while visiting Dallas in 2020. Two others, Lisa Jo Dykes and Charles Beltran, are also charged.
During the three-day hearing, police disclosed that 18 videos were permanently deleted because lead detective Christine Ramirez did not save them correctly. Defense lawyers filed a motion asking the judge to dismiss the murder and tampering with evidence charges against Marano. State District Judge Amber Givens has yet to rule on their request.
The Dallas Police Department's internal affairs division is conducting an administrative investigation of Ramirez.
In her case, officers did categorize their videos — although some categorized them as "calls for service" when they should have been "investigative evidence," Corey Parker, an officer with the DPD digital media evidence team, testified during the hearing last week. The categories carry different lengths of retention.
Calls for service are saved for only 90 days while investigative evidence footage is saved for two years, Parker said. The detective should have moved the videos into her case file to be saved permanently, he said.
García said the notice sent to DPD officers about categorizing videos last week was unrelated to the murder case.
"Obviously, I know the timing of this in light of the testimony," the chief said. "But the process started in November and I just wanted to say that I'm quite frankly proud of the fact that a commander took an internal audit and tried to fix the issue."
Asked whether anyone could face disciplinary action in connection with the thousands of uncategorized files, García said it'd be "evaluated on a case-by-case basis." The department's current policies state that "minor infractions of policy or procedure" found during bodycam reviews would "be handled as a training issue and supervisors should use the opportunity to counsel with employees to ensure no future violations occur."
"These audits are important, and we need to ensure that everyone's complying," García said. "There's many ways to conduct discipline, from training to other types of action."
He said the department policies in place now are strong, but there "may be policies to tighten up with regards to the supervisory accountability and things of that nature."
Asked whether the chief intends to add a new disciplinary clause to the policy, Lowman, the police spokeswoman, said: "With nearly 99% file tagging compliance, the Chief does not feel it is necessary to update General Orders."
Wattley, the attorney, said she was surprised to learn about the 52,000 files, adding that if the footage was important enough to record, it should be important enough "for us to be able to retrieve those recordings."
She said it's difficult to imagine that the police digital record-keeping system hasn't evolved to match the importance of the information to criminal cases.
"Defending a criminal case, there are oftentimes what appear to be small pieces of evidence, minute pieces of information that become critical, that show the inaccuracy of the government's case, that show the bias of government witnesses," Wattley said.
"And so you can't just say, 'Oh, it's something minor, it's insignificant' — because until you know what it is, you can't assess it in the context of everything that is known."