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Justice System

Some deleted Pa. crime lab records ‘no longer accessible,’ State Police say

by Angela Couloumbis |

The exterior of the Pennsylvania State Police headquarters.
Commonwealth Media Services

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HARRISBURG — A Pennsylvania State Police official has told law enforcement agencies that some crime lab records inadvertently deleted from a server by the Shapiro administration “will no longer be accessible.”

In a letter dated Jan. 22, Colette M. Smith, the head of the agency’s forensic and DNA labs, wrote that the affected evidence records were processed between June 15 of last year and the start of 2024.

“It is evident that some data will no longer be accessible,” wrote Smith of the Bureau of Forensic Services, which oversees six forensic labs and one DNA lab. “It will take time to identify all cases affected and to notify those who submitted each specific case.”

Affected records may include information about how evidence was handled once it reached the lab — known in law enforcement circles as the “chain of custody” — as well as communication logs and digital images, Smith said.

Thousands of records were deleted by the Pennsylvania Office of Administration during routine server maintenance on Jan. 3, the Shapiro administration was forced to reveal this week amid questions from reporters.

The office, which oversees information technology services at most state agencies, said “human error” led to the data mishap. The majority of data have been restored, spokesperson Dan Egan said Wednesday.

He added that “data reconstruction efforts are ongoing by [State Police]  to restore all remaining affected records as quickly as possible.”

Pa. State Police data recovery letter, Jan. 22 by Spotlight PA on Scribd

State Police did not respond to questions Wednesday to clarify whether the data Smith called “no longer accessible” can be reconstructed and what that process entails. Spokesperson Adam Reed said only: “PSP continues to work to restore data as appropriate.”

Shapiro’s office has been silent on the matter, referring questions to State Police and the Office of Administration.

The Office of Administration has not provided details about how the data were deleted, nor has it responded to questions about its data backup policies, its employee training, and what levels of permissions and powers its employees have when erasing data.

At least one Office of Administration employee has been fired since the Jan. 3 incident, sources previously told Spotlight PA.

According to Egan, of the approximately 6,300 servers the office manages in its data center, 77 were affected on Jan. 3.

The data that haven’t been recovered involve evidence logs that contain details including the time and place evidence was collected, who handled it, and where it was sent for analysis. Some law enforcement officials who spoke to Spotlight PA on condition of anonymity believe those missing logs could pose a problem in future prosecutions, as defense lawyers could raise doubts about whether evidence had been properly handled.

Kelly Callihan, who heads the association representing Pennsylvania’s district attorneys, told Spotlight PA earlier this week that her organization believes there should be “minimal impact” on cases.

State Police labs, she said, “have policies for internally tracking evidence and documenting forensic testing that is done; often referred to as the ‘old-fashioned-way’ of managing evidence in terms of chain of custody.”

The accidental data erasure affected at least one other state agency: the Pennsylvania State Employees’ Retirement System (SERS).

There, sign-in data that allowed users to log into the system to review their pension and other benefits were lost, according to SERS’ website. Those people will now have to reset their personal identification numbers.

“No pension or other retirement benefit data was impacted,” SERS’s website said.

Staff writer Danielle Ohl contributed to this story.

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