Ferguson police email deletion and search questioned
ST. LOUIS - For the past weeks, 5 On Your Side Investigates has been pouring through more than 2,000 pages of Sunshine Law requests concerning Ferguson, looking for information you haven't heard before.
Missouri has a public records law – the "Sunshine Law" -- so you can find out what public officials are doing – and how your tax dollars are being spent.
5 On Your Side is trying to examine what local officials were saying to each other in emails after the shooting in Ferguson.
The documents we've uncovered raise new questions about what has – and has not been released.
It's something concerned citizens have wondered about since the day Michael Brown died.
Would emails between Ferguson police and other officials shed any light on the shooting, the protests, law enforcement and National Guard reaction?
We reviewed copies of open records requests from reporters and private citizens across the country, and around the world, that flooded Ferguson in the days and weeks after the shooting.
Many of them asking for those emails.
But one request stands out, from a reporter whose name may forever be associated with Ferguson's open records searches, Jason Leopold.
"I wanted every officer's inbox to be searched," Leopold said in an interview with 5 On Your Side. "I had assumed all the email boxes were searched."
Leopold, with the international online news channel Vice News filed, an open records request asking for "any and all emails" police sent about Brown and the protests in the five weeks that followed.
He made national headlines when he had to pay $1200 for the search which produced seven email exchanges he published.
That's right, just seven emails, in more than a month.
When we asked about the city's search procedures, Ferguson's city manager issued a statement.
"The City has instructed the contractor to search all emails on the system," said Ferguson City Manager John Shaw. "Including deleted emails for the keywords provided by the requester."
But we started asking more questions when we discovered a report on the email search.
It's from Acumen Consulting, the St. Louis-based company the city hired to do the email search.
One line describes the search process.
"Per City of Ferguson policy, it is assumed at this time that no one has violated the 'no email deletions' policy," the document sent by Acumen to Ferguson says.
What's that mean? Two computer experts we consulted called it unusual.
"This does not appear to be a thorough search," said Minneapolis based cyber-security expert Mark Lanterman.
Lanterman says although the consultant may have searched for some deleted emails, the only comprehensive way to do a search is to look for deleted – and purged deleted - emails, too.
That's because even after you hit delete – and clean out your trash box – they sometimes survive deep in a computer's memory.
But if you check the email search contract, there is a section called "Assumptions and Conditions."
The "Assumptions and Conditions" clause from Acumen states: "It is our understanding that no one has intentionally deleted or purged email."
St. Louis computer expert Vinnie Troia says making an assumption like that is like putting blinders on the search, and in his professional opinion, the Ferguson email search was not complete.
"It isn't," Troia said. "As you're looking at a forensic process, the first thing you're looking at is deleted items."
No one knows for sure whether there were any deleted emails, but it raises the possibility that a hidden pool of them went undetected, a possibility Vice News' Leopold said Ferguson officials didn't explain, and that he didn't know until 5 On Your Side contacted him.
"No, no idea at all," Leopold said. "I'm absolutely suspicious about what was deleted in the aftermath of Michael Brown's death."
And when you read the consultant's report carefully, you discover even he thought additional searches could have been done.
"It is possible to perform a 'per computer deleted item search,'" the consultant told Ferguson officials it would "require 30 minutes per computer request."
The report goes on…
"Per our discussion regarding budget control, I have stopped the search at five hours and am presenting the results," Acumen said in its final report to Ferguson officials on the search.
That has the reporter who paid big bucks for what he thought was a complete search – wondering:
"I do believe there is a smoking gun out there someplace and it's likely in someone's trashbin," Leopold said. "I'm outraged, and I think the public should be as well."
We contacted the consultant, Acumen, multiple times trying to get clarification about all of this. No one responded, but no one has suggested the consultant is a fault.
Without a complete search, experts say there is no way to know whether there are any deleted emails.
To find out, 5 On Your Side Investigates filed an open records request for every deleted Ferguson email since August.
The city wants a down payment of $500 before they start. We'll let you know what we discover.
For the past weeks, 5 On Your Side Investigates has been pouring through more than 2,000 pages of Sunshine Law requests concerning Ferguson, looking for information you haven't heard before.