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22 CPD officers disciplined amid surge in video, audio usage

None of the videos from dashboard cameras at the scene of the Laquan McDonald shooting included any audio, leading to a crackdown on police to make sure the audio is turned on and functioning. | Screenshot

Twenty-two Chicago Police officers have been disciplined — and there has been a dramatic increase in video and audio usage — in the one-month period since the lack of audio in the Laquan McDonald and Ronald Johnson shooting videos prompted a warning from the acting superintendent.

Punishments ranged from a mere reprimand to a three-day suspension or loss of leave, according to Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.

“The disciplines were not over a destruction of equipment, but officers failing to use the cameras properly, [i.e. syncing the audio; uploading videos at the end of their tour; inspecting the cameras to ensure they work correctly],” the spokesman wrote in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times.

On Dec. 4, Acting Police Supt. John Escalante put the rank-and-file on notice: It’s every officer’s responsibility to check their equipment to make certain it’s working before every tour-of-duty. If they don’t, Escalante warned, they would face disciplinary action.

The threat has apparently worked wonders.

“We’ve seen a 75 percent increase in user uploads of video at the conclusion of their tours,” Guglielmi said.

Jonathan Lewin, deputy chief of technology for the Chicago Police Department, agreed that there has been “significant progress in overall system usage and performance” since Escalante’s reminder “reinforced the use of appropriate discipline” that had been available all along, but never exercised.

Mandatory “e-learning retraining” has also been implemented for all sworn officers below the rank of captain, Lewin said.

“We do not have system-wide metrics on proper use of the microphones, but individual site checks have indicated that more than 70 percent of the video segments have audio present where expected,” Lewin said.

“In the coming weeks, we will be working with the vendor to develop new automated analysis tools that will detect and report the presence or absence of audio on all uploaded video segments.”

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), former chairman of the City Council’s Police Committee, considers the dramatic increase in audio and video usage proof positive that something fishy was going on.

“If there was nothing mechanically wrong with these cameras and all of the sudden, you have a 75 percent increase, that means they were being disabled. Someone had to be systematically tampering with the cameras. Maybe they don’t want anybody listening or watching,” Beale said.

Beale argued that penalties “need to be much harsher” than a maximum three-day suspension.

“If someone is found to be tampering with equipment, that should be a mandatory 30-day suspension. That’s egregious. You’re tampering with something that could, potentially, prove someone’s guilt or innocence,” he said.

Noting that public trust has been shattered by the city’s handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video, Beale said: “We’re trying to put trust and integrity back into the Police Department. A 30-day suspension will send a signal to people.”

Dashcam videos had no audio on the night white Chicago Police officer Jason Van Dyke pumped 16 rounds into the body of black teenager Laquan McDonald. The muffled sound of sirens outside the squad cars could be heard. But there was no audio from inside the vehicles of any of the officers speaking. That’s even though officers are required to wear microphones on their uniforms when they step out of cars equipped with dashboard cameras.

Videos from the shooting of Ronald Johnson eight days earlier also include no audio, according to an attorney representing Johnson’s mother.

The Chicago Sun-Times subsequently reported that the Independent Police Review Authority referred 24 incidents to the Cook County state’s attorney’s office last year for review of possible police misconduct. Only three of those cases included dashcam videos. None had audio of police officers talking.

Twenty-two of those cases involved police shootings. The other two involved allegations of excessive force.

Soon, the Chicago Police Department will also have video and audio from body cameras in police districts across the city.

The department will equip officers with 1,400 body cameras this year — expanding a pilot program from one district to seven of the city’s 22 districts. The body-cam audio will be synched to dash-cams.

Last year, the department tested 30 body cameras in the Shakespeare District on the Northwest Side.