'Catastrophic data loss' affects thousands of Hamilton County Sheriff's Office dashcam videos

The sheriff's office data storage servers are shown in this undated photo. / Photo by Hamilton County Sheriff's Office
The sheriff's office data storage servers are shown in this undated photo. / Photo by Hamilton County Sheriff's Office

A "catastrophic data loss" caused thousands of Hamilton County Sheriff's Office videos from dashboard cameras to disappear - and potentially could jeopardize criminal and civil cases.

All dash camera footage for all 130 patrol deputies between Oct. 25, 2018, and Jan. 23 of this year was lost after a software failure on Jan. 13, according to a letter hand-delivered to the District Attorney's Office this week. The footage could not be recovered, as that was the only server used to store the videos.

Any video requests fulfilled before Jan. 13 have been preserved because the videos were downloaded and released to the requester, Sheriff Jim Hammond said. But any new requests for videos between the affected time frame will not be fulfilled.

Typically, dash camera videos are stored for two years, and jail videos, which were not affected, are kept for about 45 days, said Ron Bernard, director of information systems for the sheriff's office.

Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston said his office will review all cases during that time frame.

"Any time there is a loss of evidence, current and future prosecutions can be hindered," he said. "It will take a case-by-case analysis to determine if a prosecution can go forward. If the only case evidence is lost, then prosecution must cease."

Hammond said that "fortunately" his staff had already downloaded footage for "any of the hot-button cases that have been going on for the last four months."

The videos were saved because "the DA needed them for whatever has been going on, like the baptism and all those kind of things," he said, referring to a former sheriff's deputy accused of baptizing a woman during a traffic stop. "Whatever he had asked for to pull up to this point is safe."

The data loss comes amid several federal lawsuits, most of which have still not gone through the discovery phase - when attorneys review evidence they've requested.

While Bernard and Hammond said they're only aware of "a couple" of requests that were made after the failure - none of which involve cases of alleged police brutality, they said - at least two attorneys filed motions in federal court Friday night asking a judge to order the county to preserve all electronic evidence and to allow the plaintiffs to conduct a forensic examination of all technology involved with preserving dash camera videos.

"These videos - are the most crucial evidence in the case," wrote attorney John Cavett, who has filed a class-action lawsuit against the county and now-criminally indicted former deputy Daniel Wilkey, whose charges include six counts of sexual battery, two counts of rape and nine counts of official oppression.

Cavett notes that, given the one-year statute of limitations for civil suits, the lost videos include data that pertains to each and every member of the class-action suit, and it's the best method of identifying people who could join the suit.

He also points out that the data "appears to have been lost for more than a month, yet no notice of its loss has ever been provided to the plaintiff."

Another attorney, Robin Flores, who also represents several plaintiffs in cases against Wilkey and the county, including a woman who claims she was forcibly baptized, stated that he has filed requests for video and audio but has not received them.

He, too, argued that the videos are "the most crucial evidence."

"In fact," he said, the state's attorney general "blocked release of video of the 'baptism' at the center of this action" after the Times Free Press requested such video.

"The irony here is palatable," Flores wrote, pointing to a judge's denial of Wilkey's request to put the civil suits on hold until his criminal case is resolved.

A delay is "particularly harmful to a plaintiff when the risk of [destruction] of evidence, failed memories or witness unavailability is high," U.S. District Judge Travis McDonough wrote in his denial.

"This Court - foresaw this very event," Flores wrote.

The data failure occurred after information system staff noticed the nearly 13-year-old server was moving slowly, Bernard said. As they tried to determine the problem, they discovered the software hadn't been properly backing up copies of the drives. Copies, or "snapshots," of a drive taken at certain intervals allow data to be recovered from different periods in time.

The sheriff's office reached out to the operating system vendor in an attempt to remedy the issue and followed its instructions, said Adam Marthler, information systems networking lead. But that resulted in a corruption of all data, according to the office.

Technical staff then reached out to Drive Savers, a vendor for "catastrophic data recovery," but that company was unable to recover the data, said Marthler.

In the meantime, deputies were told to not upload their in-car videos, as the cameras could hold onto the footage until a new server was built. By Jan. 23, the new server was ready and deputies were told they could restart uploading their footage.

"I know people out there will say, 'Oh, they purposely did that,'" Hammond said. "Well, I want to let them know this was a technology thing. It was beyond our ability to deal with. It's a software issue from a company. And it is what it is - couldn't happen at a worse time. But it is what it is, and this will give us more ammunition for me to go to the [County] Commission to say that I've got to have a more reliable system."

A new system will cost about $1 million, whether it's building a whole separate server to back up the data or investing in a cloud-based system.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said he was aware of the data loss situation.

"It is an expensive purchase, but I've always consistently been supportive of anything that ensures the safety of our officers as well as the community," he said. "It's a big, heavy price tag, and we'll have to dig deep to find the funds to do that - But sometimes you have to make sacrifices somewhere else to be able to find the funds for something big like this."

The loss of the dash camera video - which is a public record - comes at a time when Hamilton County is under scrutiny for how it handles records. Cavett filed an open records lawsuit against the county, and Flores has repeatedly accused the county of slow-walking records requests in order to run out the statute of limitations. In addition, a citizen has accused the county of stonewalling records requests, and the county destroyed records sought by a Times Free Press reporter.

Contact Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327 with tips or story ideas. Follow her on Twitter @Hughes Rosana.

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