An Ohio cop deleted around 100,000 dash cam videos of Columbus cops traffic stops and call responses after a sworn officer working in the Technical Services Bureau made a few errant key strokes on March 8.
According to a recent press conference, Columbus Ohio police were not using a back up of any sort.
The mass deletion caused skepticism and distrust among many community members and activists who don’t believe the vanishment of 100,000 videos was an accident.
“To me, my first reaction was, this wasn’t accidental,” community activist Ruben Herrera told NBC4.
“And if I believe that, there’s lots of other people who believe that as well.”
Police officials didn’t even realize the files disappeared until March 13, which prompted an internal affairs investigation to look into whether or not it was actually an accident.
The officer, who so far has not been named, deleted all of the department’s videos from 2015 and about 500 videos from last year.
Brass at the department assured news media the Columbus police are now taking steps so it doesn’t happen again, but the chief stopped short of making promises because we’re all human, she said.
“We have taken a number of other steps. And there are more to come. That includes finding out what the employee did know, or should have known, whether or not this would occur,” said Columbus Police Chief Kim Jacobs during a press conference, calling the deletions a “significant loss.”
“We don’t believe the system informed our employee that this would the result of the change process of the system he was using,” the chief said. “(We also want to) find out if that deletion was not accidental, as we believe, but instead was purposeful.”
The chief stated she was coming clean about the blunder in front of the media in order to be transparent.
“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,” the chief said at a press conference.
“We believe that transparency means acknowledging our mistakes.”
The videos were deleted when the officer attempted to simplify the classification of thousands of cruiser video files, which police previously classified into one of 18 categories.
For instance, if the camera activated when an officer accelerated a police car, it would be labeled as “Speed.”
Columbus police wanted to simplify their classification method to make it only three categories, evidence, not evidence and permanent.
The cop relabeling the videos thought the files were in the process of being transferred over to the simplified system before the files were purged when the settings defaulted to a 90-day retention schedule.
Defense attorney David Thomas said criminal defendants could suffer the most from the deletion. Video files from a traffic stop could contain footage showing drug seizures or an arrest being made without probable cause.
Drug investigations sometimes take over a year to put together, Thomas said.
Now, the city of Columbus’ Department of Technology is assisting police to attempt to recover the files, but they have been unsuccessful so far.
Chief Jacobs says whether the videos are recovered or not could come down to whether or not they decide to spend the money in order to obtain the deleted files.
Officials said they don’t plan to recover all the lost videos.
Instead, they’ll identify which video files they want to work to recover then determine the cost and whether a third-party vendor would be required to rescue the lost files they want to retrieve.
“We’ll continue to look at that potential and talking to vendors about that kind of recovery, what type of recovery we could expect, and then whether or not it would be fiscally responsible to achieve that recovery process,” Jacobs said said.
The bulk of the deleted footage is from 2015. About a quarter includes backseat investigation. Another large chunk of files includes misdemeanor traffic stops with less than 500 videos from 2016.
“We’re not at a point where we’ll be able to say who those vendors are and what the costs might be,” Columbus Department of Technology director, Sam Orth said.
Rob O’Brien, a Franklin County prosecutor, said he believes very few pending cases will be affected, because dash cam video evidence is rarely used in felony cases with the exception of cases involving fleeing or evading charges.
When video evidence is needed for criminal cases, it is generally requested in days by police, detectives an prosecutors, Chief Jacobs said.
Now that 100,000 videos have vanished, Columbus police say they are developing a checks and balances system to prevent this sort of mishap from occurring again, such as programming the software to double check with the user before final changes, or deletions, are made.
Especially as Columbus cops start wearing more body cameras.
“To me, my first reaction was, this wasn’t accidental,” community activist Ruben Herrera told NBC4. “And if I believe that, there’s lots of other people who believe that as well.”
Currently, 32 Columbus cops are equipped with body cams. By the end of 2017, the department estimates about 500 will be equipped with body cams, and by 2018 around 1,400 will be suited up with body cams.
“We’re also going to have a planned change,” Jacobs said, “where that person who plans to make the change will do a check and balance with somebody else and say, ‘This is what I’m doing, this is my intention. This is why I wanna do it. This is what I expect to happen. Do you agree? Do you approve?’ All of that….”
The Franklin County Prosecutor was notified, along with the Columbus City Attorney, although no tampering charges have been filed.
Chief Jacobs held a press conference in an attempt to control damage to the department’s reputation and sentiments of distrust from the community towards the department after the accident.
“We believe transparency means acknowledging our mistakes,” she said.
“It’s much more complex than just the erase, the deletion, accidental, however it happened,” Herrera said.
“But if you just look at that, to me, how does that happen?”
Columbus police did not have a back up system for dash cams in police cruisers, but vowed to implement a back up system for all the department’s body cams.
“So, now we’re relying on another system, of body cams, how are we to believe that’s going to protect us?” Herrara asked rhetorically.
Watch video from Chief Jacobs’ press conference below.