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Panel to question LAPD on tampering of officers' recording gear

The Los Angeles Police Commission on Tuesday called for a public hearing to question LAPD officials about patrol officers who tampered with voice recording equipment in patrol cars.

Commissioner Robert Saltzman said he wanted to hear from senior police staff about how the case was handled and the decision not to investigate to find out which officers were responsible for the deception.

He said he also wanted an explanation for why the department failed to immediately notify the commission when the vandalized equipment was discovered.

At the commission's weekly meeting, Saltzman emphasized the in-car video cameras that the officers targeted are "a fundamental part" of efforts to guard against racial profiling by officers. The camera program helped convince federal authorities the department was capable of monitoring itself after years of close oversight by the Department of Justice, he said.

In February, commission members were reviewing a shooting involving officers and noticed recordings of several officers' voices were marred by gaps and unintelligible sections. After inquiring about the poor quality, they learned the problem was more widespread than the one incident.

An inspection by LAPD investigators several months earlier had found about half of the estimated 80 cars in the department's Southeast Division were missing small antennas that help capture what officers say in the field. The antennas in at least 10 more cars in nearby divisions had also been removed.

Instead of investigating which officers had removed antennas, police issued warnings against continued meddling and put checks in place to account for antennas at the start and end of each patrol shift, said Cmdr. Andrew Smith, a spokesman for the department.

The antennas are part of the in-car video cameras that were installed in Southeast and surrounding divisions beginning in 2010. The cameras are used to record traffic stops and other encounters that occur in front of the vehicle.

Small transmitters worn by officers on their belts relay their voices back to the antennas, which are housed inside the patrol car. Their voices can be recorded hundreds of yards away from the car, said Sgt. Dan Gomez, a department expert on the recording devices. Removing an antenna does not render the voice recorder useless but cuts its range by as much as a third, Gomez said, citing information from the manufacturer.

In his comments, Saltzman said he wanted the hearing in part to clarify how the problem with the antennas came to light and whether department officials disclosed the problem to the commission's independent investigative arm, the Office of the Inspector General. The question is "significant because it relates directly to our ability to provide effective civilian oversight of the Department," Saltzman said.

Smith acknowledged to The Times that police officials did not alert Alex Bustamante, the commission's inspector general, to the missing antennas.

After Saltzman's comments, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and the commission's president, Steve Soboroff, attempted to downplay the issue of notification. They said in September, shortly after Soboroff had been appointed to the commission, Beck told him about the antennas in a private meeting. In an interview, Soboroff said he believed at the time that the department had dealt with the issue and did not mention it to other commissioners.

The issue resurfaced in recent weeks when a follow-up audit by the department found more problems with the video equipment in the Southeast Division. Dozens of the transmitters worn by officers there were found to be unusable because small antennas on them were either missing or broken, the audit found. The department has opened an investigation into whether officers sabotaged the devices.

joel.rubin@latimes.com

Twitter: @joelrubin

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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