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Dallas City Council members grill IT department over data loss

Mariusz S. Jurgielewicz

Members of a Dallas City Council committee expressed deep concern on Thursday as they questioned city officials about a massive data loss involving millions of police department records.

The missing files affect an estimated 17,494 cases, according to a report from the city released earlier this month.

“I’m not sure that we can even fully apologize for any of the cases that don’t move forward because of these errors,” said Cara Mendelsohn, who represents Far North Dallas. “So I’m just going to say, as a city official, I apologize.”

Mendelsohn chairs the city’s Ad Hoc Committee on General Investigating and Ethics. The committee’s hearing came after the report said poor oversight and cost cutting led to the loss of 22 terabytes (TB) of data in a March incident (about 14.5 TBs were recovered). The loss happened during a large-scale migration of data off of the cloud and back to on-site servers. The technician who performed the migration has been fired.

About 13 TBs of additional data were lost in other episodes. Investigations are ongoing.

A single terabyte can hold about 500 hours of high definition video, according to NPR. The majority of the data in the March event pertained to family violence cases, the report said.

“The report shows poor policies, poor systems, poor procedures, poor training, poor management, and poor results,” Mendelsohn said.

Holding people responsible

Multiple city council members questioned Dallas’ Chief Information Officer Bill Zielinski about the management failures the Information and Technology Services Department outlined in the report. It referred multiple times to a lack of protocols and supervisors not striking the right “tone” when talking about best practices for data.

“We need to strengthen both our management controls but also the manner in which we as a leadership team talk about the importance of adhering to those,” Zielinski told the council.

Councilmember Paula Blackmon, whose district occupies the east and west sides of White Rock Lake, asked Zielinski if his department was ready for significant changes to how it does its work.

“Are you prepared, that if they’re not, to make changes?” Blackmon asked.

“I am,” Zielienski replied.

He said he would return to the committee with a more detailed, formal plan of action that includes milestones and “who are the parties that are involved.”

North Dallas council member Jaynie Schultz asked Zielinski about the report’s claim that cost cutting contributed to the March data migration. Zielinski said an assistant director within ITS was looking to control higher than budgeted vendor costs.

“There should have been more of a risk assessment that was performed prior to making that decision,” Zielinski said.

Dan Miller, founder and CEO of the firm Simplistic IT Solutions in Lewisville, told KERA it can be hard to tell during an investigation who is ultimately at fault for a data loss like this.

“Did the people who did this or are responsible — were they given the tools that they needed in the first place?” he said. “Were they forced to make shortcuts?”

Other investigations

There are at least two other current or planned probes into the data loss.

The FBI is still in its “assessment phase,” Dallas Police Deputy Chief Albert Martinez said at the hearing.

The council also wants to hire a law firm to do an outside investigation. The ad hoc committee heard proposals from three finalists on Thursday, and unanimously voted to forward a proposal from Kirkland Ellis to the full council.

In her interview with the committee, Erin Nealy Cox with Kirkland Ellis said investigating and writing a report would take about 90 days, provided the firm got access to necessary evidence and staff. It would cost the city between $366,000 and $548,000.

Bret Jaspers is a reporter for KERA. His stories have aired nationally on the BBC, NPR’s newsmagazines, and APM’s Marketplace. He collaborated on the series Cash Flows, which won a 2020 Sigma Delta Chi award for Radio Investigative Reporting. He's a member of Actors' Equity, the professional stage actors union.