LA Times: Cameras Tampered With in Dozens of Police Cars

Tuesday, 08 Apr 2014 02:11 PM

By Joe Battaglia

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Voice recording equipment in dozens of Los Angeles police cars was tampered with by officers looking to circumvent being monitored while patrolling some of the city's grittiest communities, and now some are questioning why the issue wasn't brought to light sooner.

According to the Los Angeles Times, a recent inspection revealed that the cameras in about half of the 80 cars in one South L.A. division were missing antennas, which help record what officers say in the field. Antennas were removed from at least 10 more cars in nearby divisions.

The probe was prompted by a February investigation into a shooting, during which Police Commission members questioned why several cameras in the cars generated poor audio when others didn’t. A follow-up audit last month revealed that dozens of the transmitters worn by officers in their belts were also missing or damaged.

The Times says that top police officials, including Chief Charlie Beck, became aware of the problem last summer but rather than investigate which officers were responsible, they chose to issue warnings against further tampering and implement checks to prevent further altering of the equipment.

Steve Soboroff, president of the commission that oversees the department, told The Times that failing to bring the issue to the forefront was a blatant attempt to conceal officer misconduct.

"On an issue like this, we need to be brought in right away," Soboroff said. "This equipment is for the protection of the public and of the officers. To have people who don't like the rules to take it upon themselves to do something like this is very troubling."

Beck, who advocated for the in-car video cameras that rely on the antennas, denied any wrongdoing: "The department did not try to hide this issue."

The cameras, intended to serve as both a deterrent to police misconduct and a method for defending officers against false accusations, are activated in one of two ways. They are switched on either manually, or automatically when the car's emergency lights are engaged.

While recording police stops and other encounters in front of the car, audio is relayed through transmitters worn on officer belts and captured by two antennas on the camera, one for each officer in the vehicle.

According to Sgt. Dan Gomez, an LAPD expert on the devices, officers' voices can be recorded hundreds of yards away from the car, depending on what buildings and other objects are interfering with the signal. He said removing an antenna does not render the voice recorder useless but cuts its range by as much as a third.

The vehicles from which 72 of 160 antennas were removed patrol the city's Southeast Division, which covers neighborhoods like Watts, Jordan Downs, and Nickerson Gardens, where tensions run high between police and minority communities.

Cmdr. Andrew Smith, a department spokesman, said it cost $1,500 to replace all of the missing antennas.

According to Capt. Phil Tingirides, the commanding officer of the Southeast Division, cars in his fleet were equipped with the cameras in 2010, and because different officers use the same cars over different shifts, determining who removed them would have been futile, so he elected to "move on."

Instead, warnings were issued during shift roll-call meetings, and officers are now required to document that both antennas are in place at the beginning and end of each shift. Supervisors make unannounced checks on cars to insure this is happening. Since these new protocols went into place, only one antenna has been found missing, Smith said.

Just last year, a federal judge agreed to lift more than a decade of oversight of the LAPD by the U.S. Department of Justice after city and police leaders assured that safeguards, like the cameras, were in place to monitor itself.

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