Search of Ferguson e-mails raises questions

KSDK-TV, St. Louis.

Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer.

ST. LOUIS — For weeks, KSDK-TV has pored over more than 2,000 pages of documents filed under Missouri’s public records law — the “Sunshine Law” — for information about the Michael Brown shooting.

The documents raise new questions about what has — and has not — been released about the Aug. 9 fatal shooting of the unarmed black teen by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.

Would e-mails between Ferguson police and other officials shed any light on the shooting, the protests, law enforcement and National Guard reaction?

KSDK-TV reviewed copies of open-records requests from reporters and private citizens across the country — and around the world — that flooded Ferguson after the shooting.

Many of those requests were for e-mails, but one request stood out, from reporter Jason Leopold.

“I wanted every officer’s inbox to be searched,” Leopold said. “I had assumed all the e-mail 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 Ferguson billed Leopold $1,200 for the search, which produced just seven e-mail exchanges.

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When 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 questions about the search arose after KSDK-TV reviewed a report produced by Acumen Consulting, the St. Louis-based company the city hired to search its e-mail.

The report Acumen sent to Ferguson officials read: “Per City of Ferguson policy, it is assumed at this time that no one has violated the ‘no email deletions’ policy.”.

Two computer experts called that assumption unusual.

Vinnie Troia of Night Lion Security of St. Louis said Acumen’s assumption that no e-mails were deleted effectively put blinders on the process.

“As you’re looking at a forensic process, the first thing you’re looking at is deleted items,” Troia said.

“This does not appear to be a thorough search,” said Minneapolis-based cybersecurity expert Mark Lanterman.

Lanterman said although the consultant may have searched for some deleted e-mails, the only comprehensive way to do a search is to look for deleted and purged deleted e-mails.

After e-mails are deleted — and the trash bin emptied — they sometimes survive deep in a computer’s memory.

And the time spent Acumen was allowed to spend on the search may have affected its outcome.

“It is possible to perform a ‘per computer deleted item search,'” the Acumen consultant told Ferguson officials, but it would “require 30 minutes per computer request.”.

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“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.

“I do believe there is a smoking gun out there someplace, and it’s likely in someone’s trash bin,” Leopold said. “I’m outraged, and I think the public should be as well.”.

KSDK-TV tried to contact Acumen multiple times, but got no response.

The station has filed an open-records request for every deleted Ferguson e-mail since August.

The city has requested a down payment of $500.

Ptacek also reports for WUSA-TV, Washington, D.C.