Dallas officials say they are removing most of the identifying information on individuals reporting crimes from an online public database after they began shielding some of that data last month and they plan to have further edits and delays in publication of information to consider.
The city police chief, chief financial officer, and director of data analysis appeared earlier The Dallas Morning News’ Editor and said on Tuesday that they believed the decision to edit information including names and addresses of complainants from online crime reports was correct.
They said the changes, made on October 14th without any involvement from the city council or township, had been discussed for about a year. The removal of the data became known afterwards The Dallas Morning News received a November 5 memo listing their new guidelines regarding certain victim and witness information.
The chief and other city officials told board reporters and newsroom reporters Tuesday that suggestions from the FBI and at least four people had spurred them into action. The FBI did not respond to a request for comment late Tuesday.
The move has been criticized as a backlash to government accountability and transparency, but city guides said the making the information available to the public exposed victims and witnesses of retaliation, hackers and identity thieves.
The availability of this information has previously helped The news Share the lives of murder victims and discover details on critical police incidents like Tony Timpa’s death in prison in 2016.
“The City of Dallas recognizes that while transparency creates trust, failure to protect privacy undermines trust,” said Brita Anderscheck, director of the city’s data analysis and business intelligence bureau.
City officials, including members of the police and prosecutors, are discussing two recommendations for further changes to the public database that will allow the public to search for crimes across the city.
A 24 hour delay would be imposed on publication a list of active calls That shows where the police react to crimes. Media including The news, Use the website to raise awareness of active shootings and other crimes taking place in the city.
The other recommendation would be to black out information about suspects who have been arrested.
Once the recommendations are finalized, they will be presented to members of the city council’s public safety committee for feedback, Andercheck said.
She said it was not clear when that would happen or when these meetings would take place.
The Dallas Police Department has published incident reports online for more than a decade, and the current system of records has been in use since June 2014. The city launched its open data portal in 2016, which contains the same data.
The removal of complainant information means that the public must open inquiries for basic information on previous and new incident reports. Although the city said the change was meant to protect the victims, others argue that authorities now have a greater say in providing information the public needs.
Dallas Police Department may take months to fulfill basic documentation requests if they are ever fulfilled. The department may direct inquiries about records to Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office to delay or prevent the release of information. For example, an incident report request submitted by The news in July 2020 will remain open.
Councilor Cara Mendelsohn, who was contacted after the meeting, said she would prefer a public discussion about data redaction.
She said she had suggested police chief Eddie García and deputy mayor Jon Fortune abandon full blackening and instead include the applicants’ initials, street names for single-family home addresses, and full addresses for apartment buildings with no apartment numbers.
“We have to find a balance to protect victims, but also to create the transparency that the public deserves,” said Mendelsohn.
Dallas CFO Elizabeth Reich said employees raised concerns about the information available in 2020 soon after the city established its data analytics and business intelligence office.
She said the city found it inconsistent with national best practices because it contains the names of victims and witnesses.
Reich said the information blackening was not based on a single incident, but rather “a culmination” of a year-long review.
She said the city took action after the FBI announced in October that it had concerns about the publicly available information.
“I knew the action was imminent,” she said. “And that was really exactly when I said, ‘Okay, you know, we have one more entry into the system here. Let’s take action. ‘ And that wasn’t something that had to be communicated to the city council. “
Andercheck previously said that she and Chief Information Security Officer Brian Gardner had decided to edit some of the complainant’s information following an incident this fall.
On Tuesday, she said four victims or witnesses had contacted the city to complain about the information available online.
Reich said the first such concern arose about a year ago when a man listed as a complainant in a crime involving gang activities said he was afraid of retaliation because his name was publicly known.
The city has previously blacked out publicly available information. In 2014, the Dallas police announced that they would no longer record narratives describing crimes. The ministry feared that such reports contained too much information.
García said he was only questioned about the changes after they were made, but said he supported them.
He said the blackening of the information could increase the confidence of victims and witnesses who had not previously reported crimes because they feared their information would be made public.
However, García acknowledged that the police are understaffed, so he would not be surprised if there were delays in replying to public records. He said he did not seek additional resources to help.
“As we’re growing again as a department, I’m sure this is an area we’re going to look at that needs help,” said García. “And that is revised like every other member of the department – sworn or not sworn.”
Fortune, the city’s assistant manager, said he recognizes that the police can be quicker in releasing information by asking for open records. It’s a problem, he said, that the city has been debating for years.
Complaint information in some sensitive cases, including adolescents and victims of sexual assault, was already not available.
Two CEOs of organizations that support and service victims of domestic violence said Tuesday that the public availability of identification information could lead to further harm.
Jan Edgar Langbein of Genesis Women’s Shelter and Support said it was more difficult to protect yourself from perpetrators if the names of victims of domestic violence weren’t protected.
The Family Place’s Mimi Crume Sterling requested a careful review of the information published about the victims.
Other proponents said public data helped them and that the move to blacken information should not have been taken by city staff without community involvement.
Earlier this month, family members of the alleged victim of serial murder suspect Billy Chemirmir called the changes “a complete contradiction to the principle of transparency”.
The records available through the city’s open data portal may already paint an incomplete picture of crime. A search for murder cases that year only returned 90 results. But the police’s crime stats dashboard reports at least 208 cases of murder, non-negligent homicide, and justified homicide.
Other previously available incident reports can suddenly be removed from the online portal of the city and the police for reasons that are not clear. For example, the case of Tony Timpa, who died in police custody in Dallas in 2016, no longer appears on the portal.
Andercheck said she wasn’t sure why some reports were disappearing. She said the city doesn’t edit the database – the information comes from law enforcement – so they should investigate.
“I would have to find out what happened to these incidents in particular,” said Anderscheck. “But I understand that there are times when an investigation is ongoing and things may not need to be public.”
In some cities, including Fort Worth, crime information is not available to the general public, but journalists can find it through a password-protected media portal.
Reich said the city had “not had a broad discussion” about implementing a similar portal.