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Policing software blamed in at least 3 states for errors, including losing a criminal case and crashing during 911 calls

Officials who have used Spillman Technologies’ software in California, Colorado and Texas allege it has created “huge safety risks” and led to at least one death.
A photo of a computer and hard drives in a dark room, and a
NBC News; Getty Images

A software system that was blamed for helping a California dad evade prosecution on child sex abuse allegations has also failed to perform basic functions for law enforcement in at least three different states, according to officials and court documents reviewed by NBC News.  

Officials who have used Spillman Technologies’ software in California, Colorado and Texas allege it has crashed in the midst of 911 calls, forcing dispatchers to frantically take notes by hand while emergencies were unfolding. They say it has failed to provide the fastest routes for traveling to the scenes of emergencies, costing precious time for first responders and those they’re trying to help. And they say it has lost police reports about alleged crimes, sometimes as officers were in the midst of writing them. 

Spillman Technologies, which was acquired by Motorola Solutions in 2016, provides dispatch and records management software systems to more than 1,000 agencies nationwide, according to a 2016 press release from Motorola. Officials say that while those services are crucial for law enforcement agencies, the software has failed to deliver them as promised.

Eleven spokespeople for Motorola Solutions did not respond to phone calls and emails from NBC News containing a dozen detailed questions summarizing the allegations in this story. 

A lost allegation of child sex abuse

Sgt. Rob Garnero, a spokesperson for the Redding, California police department, last month blamed Spillman for losing a 2018 allegation that Ryan Rovito, 34, had “several hundred” child sex abuse images on his computer, which authorities discovered after his ex-wife reported finding “some photos of prepubescent juveniles on his computer,” Garnero said. How exactly the case got lost within the software, though, remains unclear. 

But Redding Police Chief Bill Schueller said that it was unclear whether Rovito’s initial case was lost due to a problem with Spillman — which he said the department had just started using a few weeks before the case was filed — or a mistake made by a staff member who was “learning the new system and making a mistake in the routing of the reports.” He said a lieutenant doing an audit of other lost cases has found “a couple hundred,” but “none of any significant impact” like the Rovito case.

Lieutenant Chris Smyrnos of the Redding Police, who said he oversaw the implementation of Spillman throughout Shasta County, said that Rovito’s 2018 case was likely lost due to an “operator error where that report got misrouted” to a part of the software that was not being actively monitored by those who had access to it — something he said the software should not allow to happen in the first place.

Because it was lost, the case was never prosecuted and didn’t reach the Shasta County District Attorney’s Office until last November, after officials initially believed the statute of limitations had expired, representatives for the DA’s office and the Redding Police Department have said.

It was only after Rovito’s current wife gave police his hard drive and a hidden camera she allegedly found in the couple’s bathroom that authorities from the DA’s office determined that the 2018 case actually fell under a 10-year limit and that law enforcement would investigate it alongside the more recent case. Rovito was arrested last month on charges related to possession of child sex abuse images and surreptitious recording.

Victoria and Ryan Rovito posed for this photo in February 2022 before they married.
Victoria and Ryan Rovito posed for this photo in February 2022 before they married.Betsy Erickson

Regardless of how the case was lost, Schueller said it was “very frustrating” that Rovito’s earlier case was lost until a few months ago — and that it’s far from his only frustration with Spillman.

Rovito’s lawyer, Timothy Prentiss, has said his client maintains his innocence. His next court date is April 21.

System crashes during 911 calls create ‘huge safety risks'

Spillman has a track record of failing to properly maintain multiple types of records for the Redding police, including crime data, Schueller alleged. As a result, the crime statistics available on their website from 2019 to 2021 are “a rough estimate,” he said. 

“We didn’t do it for 2022 because it’s too screwed up,” he added.

The software has also failed to track how long it takes individual agencies to respond to the scene of an emergency, according to Schueller and Smyrnos, who said they can only see how long it takes the first agency to arrive. (If that first agency is the fire department, for example, the police department can’t see how long it took their officers to arrive, Smyrnos said.)

As a result, Schueller has hired three high school interns to try to make those calculations manually so he “can get accurate response time data” for his officers, he said. 

The software would also crash when officers were in the middle of writing police reports, Smyrnos said, adding that sometimes officers would lose narratives they had been writing for two to three hours, forcing them to start again.

And Schueller alleged Spillman has created “huge safety risks” for both first responders and civilians by repeatedly crashing while dispatchers were trying to enter details from 911 calls, which are needed to send first responders to the scene. 

When the system crashes, call takers “handwrite notes on a piece of paper while the system reboots and continue to try to help the caller and get the units — whatever they are, fire, police or ambulance resources — to that person,” he said. 

“A crash while you’re entering in an emergency call is not an effective way to serve our community,” he added. 

Schueller said that officers in his department constantly reported problems with the software to the company — and “some things would get fixed, some things would never get fixed,” he said.

The software also repeatedly crashed during 911 calls in Weld County, Colorado, where more than 40 agencies used Spillman from approximately early 2012 until last November, according to one former and one current county official. 

The system would freeze in the midst of 911 calls “like somebody unplugged it,” and call takers would then have to take handwritten notes and deliver them to a dispatcher charged with sending first responders to the scene, said Mike Wallace, the county’s former director of public safety communications.

“It was such a regular event with Spillman — the system was crashing on a weekly basis — that we had to educate and train our staff to manually intervene,” said Wallace, who is now the public safety communications manager for the city of Margate, Florida, which he said does not use the Spillman software. 

A $1.25 million settlement 

Wallace said that while he could not recall any instance in which a civilian in Weld County died as a result of Spillman’s delays, officials knew the crashes were costing dispatchers and first responders time they couldn’t afford to lose.

“Between life and death, seconds mean everything,” he said.

Lost time due to a software error made a fatal difference in San Angelo, Texas, according to a more than $3.5 million lawsuit the city brought against Spillman Technologies in 2017. 

The suit — which Spillman paid $1.25 million to settle that same year, and which was dismissed with prejudice, meaning it cannot be refiled — alleged Spillman was “a defective software solution” that “jeopardized the lives of the city’s residents and first responders.” It alleged that Spillman routinely crashed and failed to properly map the shortest routes to the scene of an emergency, causing first responders to rely on maps on their personal cellphones and forcing city residents to sometimes wait up to 30 minutes for first responders to arrive. 

In one instance, a local resident who was suffering from cardiac arrest died, allegedly while waiting for first responders to arrive after the Spillman software allegedly malfunctioned and dispatched a unit of first responders located on the opposite side of the city, 25  to 30 minutes from the scene, according to the lawsuit. A closer group of first responders eventually learned about the emergency call and beat the other unit to the scene — but by that time, it was already too late, according to the lawsuit, which said the death was “a preventable outcome for the patient.” 

In another incident, Spillman allegedly failed to alert dispatchers that multiple calls were coming from the same address: one caller — an armed man — said he planned to kill police and that neighboring homes should be evacuated, and another caller reported a house fire at the scene, the lawsuit states. As a result, police who arrived at the scene “were surprised to find the house on fire,” and firefighters were not prepared to encounter the man armed with a rifle in the home’s front yard, the lawsuit alleges, adding that firefighters “crawled to the back of their engine to take cover.” 

Lorelei Day, deputy communications director for the city of San Angelo, said officials do not have any further comment on the settlement and that the city is now using software manufactured by a different company. 

Former Spillman customers go elsewhere

Other onetime Spillman customers have also abandoned the software for what they say are more effective alternatives.

Weld County replaced Spillman last year with CentralSquare, a software system the company says is used by more than 8,000 public agencies, “due to the growth of our county and the increased functionality associated with CentralSquare,” said Tina Powell, director of public safety communications.

Shasta County will no longer be a Spillman customer as of May 1, when they will switch to Motorola’s PremierOne dispatch and records management software, which Schueller characterized as “tried and true” in large law enforcement agencies throughout the country. 

“It’s been a frustrating transition to Spillman — I’m frankly glad we’re getting out of it,” he said.