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Interim top cop puts officers on notice about squad car audio, video

Troubled by the lack of audio in the Laquan McDonald and Ronald Johnson shooting videos, Acting Chicago Police Supt. John Escalante on Friday put the rank-and-file on notice.

It’s every officer’s responsibility to check the audio and video equipment to make certain it’s working before every tour-of-duty. If they don’t and breakdowns are not promptly reported, disciplinary action will follow.

“We have a good policy in place. We’ve got to reinforce it. That’s why I sent out a reminder. When you get into that car, test the in-car camera and the audio. Make sure it’s working. That’s your responsibility,” Escalante said.

“If the system isn’t working and officers didn’t report it, we are going to take disciplinary action.”

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 sound of sirens outside the squad cars could be heard. But there was no audio from inside the vehicles.

Videos from the shooting of Ronald Johnson eight days earlier also include no audio, according to an attorney representing Johnson’s mother. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has promised to release that video next week after keeping it under wraps for months.

Escalante, a 29-year department veteran, said he’s troubled by the lack of audio and there’s no excuse for it.

“I don’t know if `fishy’ is the right term. But it’s definitely a concern. We want to make sure it’s not a problem citywide,” he said, noting that the Chicago Police Department has inspectors conducting random checks.

McDonald may not have been shot to death if any of the officers following him on that October, 2014 night has been equipped with Tasers. Instead, they put in a radio call for a Taser, but Van Dyke unloaded his weapon during the wait.

On Friday, Escalante acknowledged that every one of the city’s 22 police districts has a Taser, but there aren’t enough of them. And not enough officers have been trained to use them. The citywide total is roughly 1,000.

“We just did an inventory. The officers have to be trained. For officers coming on the job, it’s automatic. It’s part of their recruit training. For the older officers, it’s an option. We’ll  look at, should it be mandatory for everyone,” Escalante said.

“What we’ll have to do regardless is get more Tasers. Getting non-lethal options will always be a benefit. But it has to come with the right training and proper supervision.”

Earlier this week, Escalante suddenly found himself in the eye of a nationwide firestorm.

It happened after Emanuel abruptly fired his larger-than-life Police Supt. Garry McCarthy in the furor over the McDonald video and the city’s decision to wait until a week after the mayoral election to authorize a $5 million settlement to the McDonald family but keep the incendiary video under wraps until last week, when a judge ordered the city to do so.

The mayor argued then that McCarthy had become a “distraction” by losing the community’s trust and maintained that his “loyalty” to his only police superintendent does not trump his “bigger loyalty” to the city.

Escalante, whose appointment as first deputy superintendent had infuriated the City Council’s Black Caucus, was thrust into the role of acting superintendent while the Police Board conducts a nationwide search for McCarthy’s replacement.

In his first in-depth interview as acting superintendent, Escalante acknowledged that the unrelenting furor over the McDonald shooting video has made his job incredibly more difficult.

“We have serious issues to address with trust and credibility in some communities. In some cases, we have to repair those bridges that have been damaged over the last few weeks. In other cases, we have to build bridges that have never existed,” Escalante said.

Pressed to describe how he plans to rebuild that trust in the African-American community, Escalante talked about revitalizing community policing from the ground up.

“It’s not just a community policing office in each district,  but the men and women who work the beat cars. We want them to get out of the cars — not just on traffic and investigative stop but get out and show their faces at schools, churches and community events,” he said.

“In the past, that was expected of our CAPS officers. But it can’t just be them. It’s literally got to be the beat officers on their beats.”

Escalante said he’s justifiably concerned that the damage done to police-community relations in the black community could discourage young African-Americans from taking the upcoming police exam.

“We are in the middle of a recruitment drive. Applications are due at the end of January. We were really hoping we’d get a diverse pool of applicants. We’re still hoping that will happen, but it’s a concern,” he said.

“We don’t want the video and the protests to discourage people from having interest. We’re going out to communities. We want this department to accurately reflect the city we serve. For some of our younger, more vocal critics, I understand we have them. But take the challenge of applying. It’s one thing to point the finger. It’s another to help make changes from within.”

Unless he blows his audition, Escalante is almost certain to be one of three finalists for the permanent job. But the interim superintendent insisted Friday that the last three days have been such a whirlwind, he hasn’t even decided whether or not to submit his resume.

He acknowledged that his low-key personality and collaborative style will be a dramatic change from McCarthy, whose outspoken style made him a police chief out of central casting long before there was a locally-filmed television series called “Chicago P.D.”

“We do have very different personalities and different management styles. I would definitely say I’m a lot more low-key. I know I have a lot more patience. I want to get as much information as I can. I’m not saying I delay in making decisions. But I’m not an expert. I like to get information from everyone,” he said.

As for the surge in shootings now plaguing Chicago, Escalante said the key to reducing it lies in a “thorough review of where we’re deploying our people” and in the world of social media.

“I don’t think we need more people. We had the same amount of people in 2014 when we saw a dramatic reduction,” he said.

“It’s not a matter of more people. It’s  a matter of getting a handle on what is driving the violence. A lot of it is driven now by social media — the taunts and threats on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. It’s the new form of graffiti and tagging. It’s something the other gang sees immediately. It’s on smart phones and tablets. We’ve got to get a better handle on it.”

Escalante said he has “no intention of getting rid of” the Compstat accountability program that McCarthy brought with him from his days at the New York City Police Department. But “we may tweak it a little bit . . . We just want to make sure that, when we call people down, we get the best information so we can turn around and use it.”

And he promised to follow through on McCarthy’s bold promise to “obliterate” the gangs responsible for the execution of nine-year-old Tyshawn Lee.

“We’re literally going to eliminate those two gang factions from operating as street organizations. We’re in the process of doing that absolutely. It’s not going to happen overnight. But we went into that mode last week,” he said.