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Chicago cops under fire for astonishingly high dashcam, mic failures

Is it sabotage, lack of maintenance, bad policy or cheap equipment?

Analysis More than one in ten dashboard cameras and 80 per cent of microphones don't work on any given day, according to a review of the Chicago Police's recording equipment.

The incredibly high failure rate has led to some pointed questions, and added to a general sense of distrust of officers in The Second City.

It follows the delayed release of footage showing a cop killing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. On the night McDonald was shot at 16 times by officer Jason Van Dyke, there were at least four police cars with dashcams installed in close proximity, but only one of them produced any video. None of them recorded any audio.

After the footage was eventually made public, Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder. He is due to stand trial next year, and he denies using excessive force.

The startling equipment failure rate has spun a spotlight on the use of recording technology; which in turn has raised more questions than answers. A police department review has added to fears that officers are purposefully damaging or misusing the equipment.

The dashcam video and radio failures were due to "operator error or in some cases intentional destruction," noted the review. The three dashcams that failed to record McDonald's final moments had suffered a "disc error," a "power issue", and an "application error," according to the dossier.

The Chicago Sun-Times also highlighted a case where a number of police microphones were spotted on the roof of a police station – seemingly thrown there by officers.

An investigation into the prevalence of failed equipment showed that in 24 clashes involving possible police misconduct (22 were police shootings), just three had dashcam video, and none had audio recording: a statistic so high that there are calls for a full probe into the matter.

Digging deeper

It is easy to reach a conclusion that the cops are purposefully not using, or are damaging, their equipment in order to avoid accountability. But the answer, of course, is a little more complex.

And it will be all too familiar to anyone that has worked in IT.

First up: maintenance.

Digging into the appalling failure rate of recording equipment, journalists Mark Konkol and Paul Biasco discovered that the maintenance contract for the electronics – manufactured by Texas-based COBAN – had been allowed to lapse.

The city of Chicago took out a $12.5m contract with COBAN for its gear, which included a constant maintenance provision. But that contract expired in September 2012 and was not renewed until December 3, 2014: six weeks after Laquan McDonald was killed.

In those two years, checks were made out to COBAN on four occasions, presumably for emergency repairs, that ranged from $3,215 to $27,810. As anyone who has ever run a large-scale rollout of technology will tell you, without regular maintenance, everything falls apart.

There is another factor, too: the quality of the equipment.

In response to critical articles suggesting police malfeasance, blogs have been brimming with claims that the reason the equipment doesn't work – particularly the audio devices worn by officers when they leave their vehicle – is because of how poorly built it is.

"The equipment is cheap junk. The transistor radio I soldered together in Boy Scouts was more reliable than the COBAN crap we were given," complained one person who says they are a serving officer.

A spokesperson for COBAN was not available for immediate comment.

Many others agreed, also pointing to bad installation to explain the dashcam problems. "The cheap equipment the city buys, the slapdash installation, the complete lack of maintenance – these things are in use 24/7/365 with no timeouts for upkeep. You buy garbage, it's going to fail, regularly and predictably," argued one anonymous blogger. The cyber-plod added:

The antennae are as cheap or cheaper than a 1990s flip phone antennae. We're wearing them, open and unprotected on a body that already carries a gun, Taser, magazine pouches, OC spray, collapsible baton, handcuff case, maybe two handcuff cases, radio carrier, and a vest stuffed with rubber gloves, FOP book, complaint books, pens, a radio cord that stretches from the belt to our radio strap. We're amazed the antennae survive a tour.

On top of poor maintenance and cheap equipment, a good number of cops were also not surprised that video and audio footage was not available in many of the cases cited because, they argued, the department's policy was only to turn on the devices during a traffic stop.


"Why isn't anyone bringing up that when these cameras first came out we were told that audio only has to be on for traffic stops in violation of [the Illinois Vehicle Code]," notes one. "No other time are these mics supposed to be on. I even remember being told the only time they're to be removed from the vehicle is on a traffic stop; that's it."

A number of other serving officers have reported the same: that they were specifically told only to use the equipment during traffic stops during their training.

Unfortunately, the police department's policies have been updated since most officers received that training – and the coppers have clearly not been re-educated. It doesn't help that the policy update is purposefully ambiguous, presumably to avoid having to incur the time and cost of retraining all of Chicago's roughly 13,000 cops.

The current directive on recording reads:

  1. Department members are lawfully permitted to video record individuals without their consent if they are on the public way or in public view.
  2. Department members who are in uniform and have identified their office are lawfully permitted to simultaneously audibly and visually record individuals without their consent whenever:
    • a. the member is conducting an enforcement stop, or
    • b. the patrol vehicle emergency lights are activated or would otherwise be activated if not for the need to conceal the presence of law enforcement.

A second and separate point then adds additional requirements:

Uniformed Department members assigned to vehicles equipped with in-car video systems will activate the system to visually record the entire incident for all:
  1. arrests and transports
  2. nonpursuit emergency vehicle operations
  3. any situation that the member, through training and experience, believes to serve a proper police purpose

The first point – on which many officers were trained – appears to limit recording to enforcement stops or emergency situations. But the second point then adds completely new – and much broader – situations.

The policy also includes the requirement that officers check their equipment at the start and the end of their shift and report any problems. Based on officers' comments, it is clear that this policy is rarely followed – although with the extra scrutiny, many officers said they were going to do so religiously from now on. It's called protecting your ass.

Forget Windows 10, how about XP?

Adding to all of this is the fact that most police departments are woefully under-resourced and out-of-date when it comes to technology.

One cop writes: "We are in a department that is still using Windows XP. In about 50 years, we will all have smartphones issued by the department. I saw a 10-inch floppy drive unit in a storage closet. [Chicago Police Department] does not like change."

Support for Windows XP officially ended more than 20 months ago, on April 8, 2014, following years of support. We were recently amazed to discover Windows XP being used on a new British warship, although the Navy subsequently promised it would be pulled out before the ship set sail.

But our favorite comment from a Chicago police officer came when an IT worker suggested that maybe one solution would be to develop software to help the plod save on paperwork:

Slow down, Steve Jobs. I know you are probably developing such an app in your basement now so you can sell it to the city of Chicago. You have to remember one thing: the city usually buys the cheapest crap on the market which will inevitably break down and not get repaired. And two: in order for that app to work the city would have to purchase cell phones for us - and that is not going to happen.

So what is to blame for the fantastically high number of equipment failures in the Chicago police department's recording systems?

Is it outdated training, ambiguous policies, poor maintenance, poor IT, cheap equipment or officer malfeasance? The truth is likely all of the above.

But let's be honest: if there is already a long history and cultural acceptance of equipment failure, then it is going to be all too easy for the few cops that do act unprofessionally and illegally to use it as an excuse to avoid accountability. ®

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