This article was originally published on The Colombus Dispatch by Paul Butler on March 22, 2017.
An estimated 100,000 dash-camera videos stored from Columbus Police Division traffic stops and call responses were deleted after an officer apparently made a few errant keystrokes, officials announced Tuesday.
Police Chief Kim Jacobs called the deletion a “significant loss,” noting that all 2015 videos and an estimated 500 video files from last year were deleted.
“While we don’t think it’s going to have a big impact on prosecutions, we did believe it was important to say this now rather than waiting for somebody else to discover it,” Jacobs said at a news conference. “We believe that transparency means acknowledging our mistakes.”
The deletion happened March 8 when a sworn officer working in the Technical Services Bureau attempted to reclassify thousands of video files. Police previously classified cruiser videos into one of 18 categories. For example, if the camera was triggered on because the officer accelerated in a patrol car, then it would be labeled under “Speed.”
Police decided to go to a more simplified three-category system: evidence, not evidence and permanent. The officer working to relabel the files thought they were being transferred into the new classification system. Instead, the settings defaulted to a 90-day retention schedule and were purged from the server.
Officers realized the files were gone on March 13. An internal investigation is being conducted.
The city’s Department of Technology is working with police to try to recover the files.
When video is valuable to criminal cases, it usually is requested by officers, detectives and prosecutors within days, Jacobs said.
Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney Ron O’Brien said with the exception of fleeing and eluding cases, dash-camera video isn’t used often in felony cases.
“I expect any pending cases where the video was deleted we should already have a copy of it if it’s relevant,” he said.
David Thomas, an attorney and partner at Taft Stettinius & Hollister, said drug investigations sometimes take more than a year to piece together. Video from a traffic stop where drugs are seized could show an arrest was made without probable cause, he said.
“It highlights the degree to which all of us — law enforcement, lawyers and citizens — all depend on technology and how fragile that dependence is,” he said. “There’s these ones and zeroes that can just disappear with how they’re maintained. It really doesn’t instill confidence in the Division of Police.”
Jacobs said the division will institute more checks and balances to prevent a similar mistake in the future, especially as more officers wear body cameras. So far, 32 officers are wearing body cameras. By the end of the year, an estimated 500 will be equipped, and by 2018, about 1,400 will be wired up. The video for body cameras is kept on a server separate from the cruiser video.
Per division policy, cruiser recordings are supposed to be kept for two years unless there is a pending criminal and/or civil case involved.
Police and technology officials don’t plan to work to recover all of the lost video. Instead, they plan to identify which video they need to work to recover and whether a third-party vendor will be needed to try to rescue the files.
“We’re not at a point where we’ll be able to say who those vendors are and what the costs might be,” said Sam Orth, Columbus Department of Technology director.
Thomas said he doesn’t worry about his past or even current cases when it comes to the video. He’s already pulled it. He worries about future ones.
“It is impossible today to know what’s going to be important tomorrow,” he said.