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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Despite judge’s ruling that Spokane County deleted video evidence in jail death ‘to avoid legal obligation,’ officials say they correctly followed policy

A federal judge found Spokane County liable for an inmate's death after deleting more than six hours of video. The mystery never got answered in court, but Detention Services says it followed its video policy and wasn't trying to get out of its litigation obligations.   (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

Six hours of missing Spokane County Jail video hardly came up last week during closing arguments in a civil case involving a death at the jail in 2018.

Lawyers talked to jurors about constitutional rights. They tried to convince them why their clients were or weren’t responsible for Cindy Lou Hill’s death. They spoke of negligence, burdens of proof and financial damages.

But for the most part, even though it played a key role in a multimillion dollar federal court case, the attorneys ignored the surveillance footage mystery.

A federal jury on Tuesday awarded $27 million in damages to Hill’s estate. NaphCare, the private company that provides medical services to the county jail, has to pay $26.5 million of that figure while Spokane County will have to pay $275,000. NaphCare is appealing the decision.

The verdict’s been delivered, but the question of what happened to more than six hours of evidence never got answered in court.

In May, before the trial began, U.S. District Court Judge Mary Dimke ruled that Spokane County Detention Services allowed surveillance video of Hill’s cell to be overwritten “with an intent to avoid its legal obligations.”

Dimke’s ruling meant that Spokane County couldn’t deny its responsibility for Hill’s death. The county’s legal team could only argue how much it should pay in damages.

Hill was found on her cell floor before 9 a.m. on Aug. 25, 2018, screaming in agony and complaining of stomach pains. She was quickly transferred to a medical cell, where she was found dead at 5:24 p.m.

Detention Services saved footage showing Hill’s transfer in the morning. The county saved footage from the hour before her death, too. But the video in the middle wasn’t saved, and the county couldn’t tell Dimke why.

“Spokane County offers the Court no explanation – credible or otherwise – about why someone at Spokane County Detention Services made the intentional choice to preserve video from 8:43 a.m. to 9:15 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. yet chose to allow the portion from 9:15 a.m. to 4 p.m. to be permanently destroyed,” Dimke wrote.

Don Hooper, who served as a lieutenant at the downtown jail in August 2018, said the video wasn’t deleted to avoid litigation obligations.

Hooper, now Detention Services’ interim director, explained that the jail retains all video for 60 days, as required by Washington law.

After 60 days, most of the video gets deleted.

Relevant video of critical incidents gets saved, Hooper said. It’s usually up to the sergeant on duty and investigators from the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office to decide what’s relevant.

Hill’s death was a critical incident, but Detention Services didn’t think the six hours of video in question were relevant.

“It was well before the medical emergency happened,” Hooper said.

Corrections officers had done their rounds and hadn’t reported anything out of the ordinary.

“In each case, you make a judgment call,” Hooper said. “This was a medical-related incident. There was no indication of wrongdoing or an assault or anything else.”

For storage reasons, it isn’t feasible to save all the video from every critical incident, Hooper said.

Detention Services stored jail footage on DVDs in 2018, but the department now uses a server. The change has allowed Detention Services to save more video, although Hooper emphasized the technology upgrade had nothing to do with Hill’s death.

Hooper said he didn’t want to speculate about whether, with the benefit of hindsight, Detention Services should have saved the video.

“I believe we followed the policy,” he said. “We got the video of the critical incident, and there’s no indication that anything happened between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.”

Hooper said Detention Services isn’t investigating why the video was allowed to be overwritten and doesn’t intend to discipline the supervisor who made the decision.

Detention Services hasn’t changed its video policies since Hill’s death and doesn’t expect to in the immediate future.

“The policy hasn’t changed: Save all relevant video,” Hooper said.