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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

EDITORIAL: Police Should Halt Email Deletion

Editorial: Dallas police should halt email deletion 
The Dallas Morning News - EDITORIAL - May 4, 2012

The relationship between a big-city police department and a big-city newspaper is typically strained. Not love-hate, precisely, but more accurately a symbiotic need-mistrust. Police often need the visibility the newspaper can provide to their crime-fighting efforts but often mistrust reporters’ motives. Newspapers need police to provide clear, accurate information to keep readers informed about that crime-fighting but often mistrust what police can’t or won’t say. The best police departments, the ones that earn the public’s trust, are the ones that steer toward transparency. The ones with the least to hide should be the most willing to put as much as is legally allowed into the public record, letting the chips fall. In short, a police department that has nothing to hide — or less than most — should have little to fear from reporters’ prying eyes. This is what The Dallas Morning News wants for the Dallas Police Department, which has made great strides in the last decade in enforcing the law in a large and diverse city and consequently leading the way to lowering Dallas’ crime rate to historic lows. And this is why the department’s apparent hide-the-ball practice, if not necessarily policy, of permanently deleting email and text messages is so troubling. Communications have changed dramatically over the years, from word of mouth to scribbled notes on paper to electronic bits of data on laptops and smartphones. Those emails and texts from city-provided devices belong to the city, which we could loosely define as the taxpayers funding city government. As such, they are public records subject to state and local document retention codes. Allowing individual employees to decide which ones to keep and which ones to delete forever is just asking for trouble. As this newspaper’s Scott Goldstein reported, city and police officials insist they are following the law to the digital letter and blame a lack of electronic storage space for the quick-delete practice. “The job of police officers is to provide public safety,” Assistant City Attorney Warren Ernst says. “Not to provide a record for you to do your story. So the emphasis is on public safety.” Ernst’s straw man argument ignores the possibility that these worthy goals need not exist in conflict. Dallas attorney Paul Watler, a freedom of information expert and longtime consultant to The News, points to state document retention laws that also require the city to provide sufficient electronic storage. In other words, if that’s the city’s excuse, it’s the city’s responsibility to fix it. The good news for Dallas police is that no one is asking them to do even more with less in their dangerous, vital work. All this newspaper — and, we hope, every taxpaying Dallas resident — wants is for police to stop doing something that could chip away at the level of trust a big-city police department needs to do its job with accountability and credibility. Dallas police email retention practice vs. state law The stated DPD records retention practices and procedures fail to comply with numerous provisions of the Texas Local Government Code, the Texas Administrative Code, the Dallas City Code, and the DPD Records Retention Schedule. As an initial matter, and contrary to DPD officials’ assertions, both the DPD Records Retention Schedule and state law require that all DPD personnel retain email communications for certain minimum time periods depending on the subject matter of the communications. … Likewise, state law mandates that DPD’s email server(s) be of sufficient capacity and capability to allow for the retention of all records in full compliance with applicable records retention schedules. See l3 TEX. ADMIN. CODE 7.72, 7.76; see also 13 TEX. ADMIN. CODE 7.79 (“An electronic recordkeeping system must not provide an impediment to access to public records”). To the extent that DPD’s email server(s) are incapable of storing records or present an impediment to public access of such records, DPD is in violation of state law. — Excerpt from a letter from Paul Watler, an attorney representing The Dallas Morning News, to Dallas City Attorney Tom Perkins, April 23, 2012

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