Police video a broken system: Recent case shows how damage, negligence hamper program
By: Steve Schmadeke, David Heinzmann & Dan Hinkel, Chicago Tribune: December 23rd, 2015
After her teenage son died in a police-chase crash, Jondalyn Fields’ lawyers asked the Chicago Police Department for the videos from their cars and along the route to try to find out what happened.
While her lawsuit dragged on for six years, the city finally made a startling claim: Some of the videos it had long denied existed had been erased or recorded over.
“The city didn’t care — they were just, ‘Go away, go away, go away,’ ” said Fields, who last month won a $2.75 million verdict against the city from a Cook County jury.
Video surveillance is now omnipresent, but cases such as the death of Fields’ son, Keith MacNeice Jr., and the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald show the proliferation of cameras doesn’t assure that the public, let alone the alleged victims’ families, will have access to complete recordings.
Time and again, lawyers suing over alleged police misconduct have found that the Police Department failed to produce crucial video or audio from the storage system the city spent millions of dollars to implement.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration fought for much of a year to prevent the release of the disturbing video showing Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting McDonald 16 times. The video contradicted the department’s claims that McDonald, 17, was moving toward police, menacing them with a knife, before he was shot. Its release has sparked weeks of protest, calls for the resignations of Emanuel and State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, and the launching of a Justice Department investigation of the Police Department.
Even with its release, though, there were shortcomings. The department made video public from five of the police cars at the McDonald shooting, but the audio did not work on any of them, a remarkable failure given the marketing emphasis the camera maker, Coban Technologies, devotes to the performance and reliability of its audio.
The Police Department has had a written policy on the use and maintenance of its dashboard camera video system since November 2006, but it largely has not followed those rules, especially when it comes to maintaining working microphones to capture audio.
Coban officials, including the vice president who signed the company’s $12 million contract with the city, declined to speak to the Tribune about their system. David Hinojosa, vice president of sales, cited the pending federal investigation of the McDonald shooting for the company’s stance.
But in promotional videos posted online, the company highlights the audio capabilities of its TopCam G2 system — the portable, battery-powered microphones that Chicago police officers wear clipped to their bodies. Through testimonials from several company officials and law enforcement officials among Coban’s clients throughout the country, the company touts the audio as one of the system’s main selling points, largely because of the record it creates for police to rely on in court.
Police officers and other law enforcement sources who talked to the Tribune on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly said the microphones routinely don’t operate because of negligence by the department. The mics are lost or broken, or the batteries wear out or are removed, the officers said. But the inoperable ones are rarely replaced or fixed, they said.
So far this year, only three of the 22 police shooting or excessive force cases referred to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office for possible prosecution had been captured on dash-cam videos, yet none had functioning audio, said Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for the office.
Testifying under oath during a 2014 deposition in an excessive force lawsuit, a Harrison District sergeant, Jeffrey Truhlar, said that 70 to 80 percent of the in-car video systems in that high-crime district are not working on any given day, according a partial transcript.
A Police Department spokesman acknowledged this week that the vast majority of microphones don’t work.
“Currently, 80 percent of cameras don’t record audio due to technical or human error and in some cases intentional destruction to microphones,” said the spokesman, Anthony Guglielmi.
Whatever the reasons for the equipment failure, the department’s rules on how officers and supervisors are expected to use the system are fairly simple.
When damage or operability issues are discovered, the officer who discovers the problem must “verbally notify the member’s supervisor of the damage or malfunction,” the policy states.
If the equipment has been damaged, the officer must “submit a To-From-Subject report documenting the damage, to the unit commanding officer, before the end of the member’s regularly scheduled tour of duty.”
Since assuming command of the department early this month in the fallout over the McDonald shooting video, interim police Superintendent John Escalante vowed that officers who fail to follow procedures for maintaining the video system will face disciplinary action.
Guglielmi was unable to provide any records showing if any officers had been disciplined for damaging equipment before the McDonald fallout, and the department declined to make police leaders available to answer questions on that point.
Police cameras accomplish little if they’re not maintained and accompanied by strong policies and a culture of accountability, experts said. Even body cameras — coming soon to more Chicago officers as part of a pilot program — depend on police flicking on the devices in time to film encounters with civilians.
“Like everything else with a police department, if there’s no supervision, if there’s no enforcement … then there’s no added benefit in terms of accountability,” said Michael White, a criminal justice professor at Arizona State University who wrote a federal report on body cameras.
The MacNeice case raises questions not only about the city’s willingness to preserve and share video but also its commitment to disciplining officers.
Fields’ attorneys said the pursuing officer, Ivan Ramos, was not disciplined even though he allegedly violated departmental rules by continuing a high-speed pursuit of the car driven by MacNeice’s friend, Angel Burgos, over a traffic violation. Ramos also failed to alert dispatch about the chase until 10 minutes after it started, they said.
Trial testimony revealed the Police Department’s traffic review board didn’t even investigate the crash in the 500 block of North Sacramento Boulevard because Ramos’ supervisor didn’t check off boxes on a form to indicate that someone had been killed, Fields’ attorneys said.
Crucial video from two Chicago police cameras along the pursuit route — including one just blocks from the crash site — were not preserved despite a judge’s order. The city eventually acknowledged it didn’t even look for one of the videos.
“They said, ‘We forgot to do that.’ They really didn’t even have an excuse,” said Jon Loevy, one of Fields’ attorneys.
Fields’ attorneys also found a city document saying 16 minutes of video had been preserved from a police camera just blocks from the fatal crash. But the city’s Law Department argued it was a typo — that the author had simply forgotten to add “not” before the word “preserved.”
No footage from that camera was ever produced.
“You shouldn’t be able to lose all the videotapes, and nobody asks any questions,” Loevy said. “Even after this jury verdict, nothing’s going to happen. There’s going to be no mechanism at the Police Department to say, ‘Gee, what went wrong here? Why did all this video get destroyed?’ Nobody’s going to ask any questions … and nobody’s going to get in trouble.”