Dashcams, bodycams, and other cop-tracking technology has been touted by community leaders and police departments alike as a tool for ensuring that the police are playing by the rules. A new report out of Chicago underscores one of the problems with this thinking.
An investigation by DNAInfo in Chicago into why so many dashcam videos are silent yielded what should be a shocking revelation: Much of the time the footage doesn’t have any audio because officers have “pulled out the batteries” on microphones, yanked of the antennas, or simply not properly synced the footage. Even in cases where “intentional destruction” isn’t to blame, cameras often went unrepaired for months upon months.
Of particular interest is the information obtained about the squad car of Jason Van Dyke, the officer who shot Laquann McDonald and currently faces first-degree murder charges, party thanks to evidence captured by police dashcams. Turns out his dashcam’s had issues—leading right up to the night of the shooting, when the dashcam recorded no audio.
On June 17, 2014, police technicians reported fixing a dashcam wiring issue in police vehicle No. 6412, the squad shared by Van Dyke and Walsh, about three months after it was reported broken, records show.
A day later, the same vehicle’s dashcam system was reported busted again. It took until Oct. 8, 2014, to complete repairs of what technicians deemed “intentional damage,” according to reports.
Just 12 days later, on Oct. 20, 2014, dashcam video recorded from squad car No. 6412 on the night Van Dyke shot and killed McDonald did not record audio. The video that went viral showing Van Dyke killing Laquan was taken from a different squad car, but it, too, had no audio.
The deeper you look at the numbers the more troubling it looks. Did you know four cars at the scene of the McDonald shooting didn’t record audio. Here’s another crazy factoid from the report:
Between Sept. 1, 2014, and July 16, 2015, maintenance technicians assigned to troubleshoot and repair dashcam systems reported 90 incidents where no microphones were found in squad cars, according to police logs.
At the very least, you could characterize the actions of the police department and officers involved as willfully negligent. They knew the dashcams were busted, and they did nothing to try to fix them in a timely fashion. A more cynical observer might argue that the officers knew they were up to no good, or didn’t feel the need to abide by legally mandated transparency.
It would be one thing if the malfeasance in Chicago was isolated, but it’s not. A 2014 investigation in New Orleans found that over a sample period most “use of force” incidents didn’t have body camera footage available. Somehow, that footage was magically disappearing—either cameras were never turned off or footage was lost after the fact.
Now most interested parties, including lefty orgs like the ACLU, believe these police surveillance technologies will eventually help make police accountable, and more broadly, that they will lead to safer streets for everyone. Indeed, the experiment with radical body camera transparency in Seattle has been a qualified success. Body cameras have lead to indictments of killer cops, which many thought would never happen.
The problem is that bad cops take the order to abide a modicum of transparency as an affront. If we’re to believe that these technologies are really more than just fancy tools designed to protect cops. The police, and the departments and city governments that supervise them need to do a better job ensuring the technology isn’t abused.
Top image: Footage shot by Chicago Police dashcam moments before officer Jason Van Dyke shoots Laquan McDonald.