Chicago police dashcams: Are cops breaking them?

The 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald initiated a dashcam investigation by the Chicago Police Department, and accusations are flying.

Chicago Police Department/AP
In this Oct. 20, 2014 frame from dash-cam video provided by the Chicago Police Department, Laquan McDonald, right, walks down the street moments before being shot by officer Jason Van Dyke in Chicago.

A Chicago Police Department (CPD) audit reveals that officers have deliberately damaged many of the patrol cars’ dashboard cameras. 

After 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times by Chicago Police officer Jason Van Dyke in Oct. 2014, the dashcam video of the shooting went viral. Racial tensions between white officers and black communities rose throughout the country, and internally, the CPD began an intensive investigation of dashcam integrity. 

Because of the five vehicles with dashcam systems present at Laquan’s shooting that October night, none of them recorded audio and only two actually recorded the video. 

But the five dashcams in Laquan’s case that did not operate or only operated in part are not a statistical coincidence. Last month, CPD officials found that 80 percent of its 850 dashcams do not record audio and another 12 percent don’t record video either. The CPD says “operator error or in some cases intentional destruction” are to blame for the dysfunction but a DNAinfo Chicago review of the data says the latter excuse is entirely responsible. 

“Chicago Police Department officials stashed microphones in their squad car glove boxes. They pulled out batteries. Microphone antennas got busted or went missing. And sometimes, dashcam systems didn’t have any microphones at all,” DNAinfo Chicago reports from their analysis. 

Police Supt. John Escalante warned of tampering repercussions in December, and has since issued several “formal reprimands and up-to-three-day suspensions” to hold officers accountable.

The Chicago Police Department did not return calls and emails for comment. 

Fraternal Order of Police Chicago President Dean Angelo tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Thursday that the department is punishing officers to deflect away from its own inefficiencies. 

“I don’t agree it’s human tampering,” said Mr. Angelo. “These cameras are in disrepair for long periods of time. The department doesn’t want to claim responsibility so for them so it's human error … they are reflecting their inability to repair these cameras in a timely way.” 

Police technicians repaired Van Dyke’s dash camera on June 17, three months after the officer reported it broken. Van Dyke again reported the camera damaged on June 18, and it was not fixed again until Oct. 8. Technicians deemed it “intentional damage,” records show. 

And when Laquan was shot and killed 12 days later, the camera did not record audio. Technicians again looked at the equipment on Oct. 31 but found “no problems,” attesting the lack of audio to personnel failure to sync up the microphones. 

“Why does it automatically turn into a police officer being responsible?” asks Angelo. “It’s easier to blame a police officer than blame the repair process.” 

And not only are the officers not responsible, says Angelo, but the department is blindly accusing the wrong officers. If something in an officer’s car is damaged, such as the dash cam’s video or audio capabilities, the previous car’s owner is written up. 

“I’m not going to say there is no time when someone puts the microphone in the glove compartment, I’m sure that’s happened. But to the extent that these calls are coming in? Officers are saying [their cameras] have been broken for months, but now I’m getting written up,” Angelo tells the Monitor. “To say these officers are unilaterally damaging, I don’t believe it.” 

Of the 22 Chicago Police-involved shooting investigations examined by the Independent Police Review Authority, only three included dashcam video footage. And none of these three recordings included audio. 

But Angelo says police officers have no reason to intentionally damage their dashcams. 

“These are advantageous pieces of equipment,” he says. “These are advances in technology and policing that can benefit the officers.”

The public also sees dash cams as tools for exposing the truth. As the public’s demand for more transparency has grown, Chicago prosecutors have released dashcam footage before police trials even begin.

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