City officials said the changes, which were made Oct. 14 without City Council or community input, had been discussed for about a year.
Dallas officials say they stand by removing most identifying information about people who report crimes from an online public database after they began shielding some of that data last month, and they plan to move forward with considering further redactions and delays in releasing information.
The city’s police chief, chief financial officer and data analytics director appeared before The Dallas Morning News’ Editorial Board and said Tuesday that they think the decision to redact information including complainant names and addresses from online crime reports was the right thing to do.
They said the changes, which were made Oct. 14 without City Council or community input, had been discussed for about a year. The removal of data came to light after The Dallas Morning News obtained a Nov. 5 memo detailing their new policies regarding certain victim and witness information.
The chief and the other city officials told the board and newsroom reporters Tuesday that suggestions from the FBI and at least four people led them to act. The FBI declined late Tuesday to comment immediately.
The move has been criticized as a setback for government accountability and transparency, but city leaders have said that providing the information to the public exposed victims and witnesses to retaliation, hackers and identity thieves.
The availability of that information has previously helped The News tell about the lives of homicide victims and uncover details about critical police incidents, such as the in-custody death of Tony Timpa in 2016.
“The city of Dallas recognizes that while transparency builds trust, failure to protect privacy erodes trust,” the city’s data analytics and business intelligence office director, Brita Andercheck, said.
The city staff, including members of the police department and city attorney’s office, are discussing two recommendations for further changes to the public database, which allows the public to search for crimes that happened across the city.
One would impose a 24-hour delay in publishing a list of active calls that shows where police are responding to crimes. Media outlets, including The News, use the website to alert the public to active shootings and other crimes happening in the city.
The other recommendation would redact information about suspects who are arrested.
Once the recommendations are finalized, they will be brought to members of the City Council’s public safety committee for feedback, Andercheck said.
She said it wasn’t clear when that would happen or when those meetings will occur.
The Dallas Police Department has published incident reports online for more than a decade, and the current records system has been in use since June 2014. The city launched its Open Data portal, which includes the same data, in 2016.
The removal of complainant information means the public must file open-record requests to get basic information on past and new incident reports. Although the city said the change is meant to protect victims, others argue that the authorities will now have more say in providing information the public needs.
Dallas police can take months to fulfill basic record requests, if they are ever filled. The department can direct record requests to Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office to delay or prevent the release of information. For instance, a request for incident reports filed by The News in July 2020 remains open.
Council member Cara Mendelsohn, contacted after the meeting, said she would prefer a public discussion about redacting data.
She said she suggested to police Chief Eddie García and Assistant City Manager Jon Fortune that they forgo complete redactions and instead include the initials of the complainants, the street names for single-family home addresses and the full addresses for multifamily complexes without unit numbers.
“We have to find a balance to be able to protect victims but also provide the transparency that the public deserves,” Mendelsohn said.
Dallas’ chief financial officer, Elizabeth Reich, said staff members had raised concerns about the available information in 2020, shortly after the city created its office of data analytics and business intelligence.
She said the city determined that it was out of sync with national best practices because it included the names of victims and witnesses.
Reich said redacting the information wasn’t based on a single incident, but instead “a culmination” of a yearlong review.
She said the city took action after the FBI said in October that it had concerns about the information that was publicly available.
“I knew that the action would be imminent,” she said. “And that was really just the point in time where I said, ‘OK, you know, we have one more input to the system here. Let’s take action.’ And this was not something that needed to be briefed to the City Council.”
Andercheck previously said she and chief information security officer Brian Gardner decided to redact some complainant information after 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 came about a year ago, when a man listed as a complainant in a crime involving gang activity said he was afraid of retaliation because his name was publicly available.
The city has previously redacted information that used to be publicly available. In 2014, Dallas police announced they would no longer include narratives describing offenses. The department feared that such reports were providing too much information.
García said he wasn’t consulted about the changes until after they were made, but he said he supports them.
He said redacting the information may build the trust of victims and witnesses who previously would not have reported crimes because they were afraid their information would be made public.
But García acknowledged police are understaffed so he wouldn’t be surprised if there were delays in filling public record requests. He said he hasn’t requested additional resources to help.
“As we grow as a department, again, I’m certain that this is an area that we will look at that needs the help,” García said. “And that is overworked like every other department member — sworn or nonsworn.”
Fortune, the assistant city manager, said he recognizes that police can be more timely in releasing information through open-record requests. It’s a problem, he said, that the city has been discussing for years.
Complainant information in some sensitive cases, including those involving juveniles and sexual assault victims, already was unavailable.
Two CEOs of organizations that provide support and services for victims of domestic violence said Tuesday that the public availability of identifying information may lead to further harm.
Jan Edgar Langbein of Genesis Women’s Shelter and Support said failing to guard the names of domestic violence victims makes it harder to stay safe from abusers.
Mimi Crume Sterling, of The Family Place, urged careful consideration of the information made public about victims.
Other advocates have said public data has helped them and that the move to redact information shouldn’t have been made by city staff without community input.
Earlier this month, family members of the alleged victims of serial murder suspect Billy Chemirmir called the changes “a complete contradiction to the principle of transparency.”
Records available through the city’s open-data portal already can paint an incomplete picture of crime. A search for homicide cases this year yields only 90 results. But the police department’s crime statistics dashboard reports at least 208 cases of murder, non-negligent manslaughter and justifiable homicide.
Other incident reports that were previously available also can suddenly be removed from the city and police’s online portal for reasons that are unclear. For example the case of Tony Timpa, who died in Dallas police custody in 2016, no longer appears in the portal.
Andercheck said she wasn’t sure why some reports disappear. She said the city doesn’t edit the database — the information comes from law enforcement — so she would need to investigate.
“I would need to figure out what in particular is happening with those incidents,” Andercheck said. “But my understanding is that there are times when there is an investigation underway that things may need to not be public.”
In some cities, including Fort Worth, offense report information is not available to the general public but is searchable by journalists through a password-protected media portal.
Reich said the city hasn’t “had a broad conversation” about implementing a similar portal.