CHICAGO — It's not just the officers linked to the Laquan McDonald shooting with malfunctioning squad car cameras.
Rank-and-file police officers routinely struggle to get their in-camera dashcam video systems working, DNAinfo Chicago has learned.
“On any given day there may be several hundred open calls to the help desk for in-car camera issues,” Chicago Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said.
Questions about dashcam malfunctions became a major issue within the department after the video showing a Chicago officer shoot Laquan McDonald 16 times was released without audio of the incident.
Currently, about 12 percent of the in-car cameras have video problems, and 80 percent of dashcams don’t record audio properly. Malfunctioning audio recording is mostly due to human error and “intentional destruction,” police officials said.
Guglielmi said when the Police Department help desk receives calls from officers and supervisors about in-car recording system malfunctions, technicians visit districts to check the equipment.
“A majority [of the problems] are not ‘repair’ issues, but are either operator error or other user issues or configuration issues that can be immediately addressed,” Guglielmi said. “When an actual hardware repair is required it is addressed by sending the vehicle to a garage where the vehicle is downed for maintenance and the repair is conducted.”
DNAinfo Chicago reported Monday that city records show the extended warranty on the city's original $12.5 million contract for COBAN dashcams (a contract that guaranteed keeping the in-car video systems in working order) expired in September 2012.
It’s unclear whether the expired warranty contributed to the "high number" of malfunctioning cameras, including many that fail to record audio, and the several hundred calls the department help desk receives every day.
Interim police Supt. John Escalante has put rank-and-file officers and fleet supervisors on notice that no matter what causes a malfunction, they will be held responsible for making sure dashcam video and audio systems are working before going on patrol.
Escalante "has taken major steps to improve this," he said, including "promising that any officer who knowingly turns off the audio function or otherwise does not follow department policy related to this equipment will face discipline; investing in technology upgrades and repairs; and mandating inspections of the equipment prior to the start of each shift by front line supervisors."
And, so far, there's evidence that the superintendent's warning has been effective, police say.
Guglielmi said there has been an “increase in video uploads at the end of each duty tour,” since Escalante made it clear officers and shift supervisors will face discipline if they don’t make sure dashcams are operating properly before going on patrol.
But Fraternal Order of Police President Dean Angelo said he thinks police officials are attempting to deflect blame for dashcam disrepair away from the Police Department and City Hall and put on to the rank and file.
“Who else are they going to blame? No one wants to assume responsibility with anything that comes to the tension and environment going on right now. So, the best thing do is point in another direction," Angelo said.
"The FOP has been brought into discussions about things we have nothing to do with, and officers are being accused of being involved with things they have no impact on. They’re looking to discipline people, but they don’t repair them. It’s easy to point fingers now and it seems … whether you're involved in the department or an elected official, everyone wants to point toward [the FOP] or our members.”
Angelo specifically questioned the validity of the department’s claim that officers are to blame for making errors or intentionally destroying dashcam equipment to disable audio recording capabilities.
“How they determine that it’s purposely caused damages, I’d like to know. How they can figure out what is mechanical or what is human error, I’d like to know,” Angelo said.
“If they’re claiming officers are purposely breaking things then where is the history of that? Are [officers] being written up? Does the department have documentation to back those claims up? I’d like to see it. I don’t think our office is being inundated with officers being disciplined for damaging in-car camera systems. Quite the contrary, my members claim those things continually remain in a state of disrepair. Requests go in to get the units fixed, and what I hear from our members is that weeks and months go by while those things sit in disrepair."
On Monday, police had not responded to questions from DNAinfo Chicago about how repairs were made after the original warranty expired, including how much money was spent to do repairs.
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