Los Angeles police officers tampered with voice recording equipment in dozens of patrol cars in an effort to avoid being monitored while on duty, according to records and interviews.
An inspection by Los Angeles Police Department investigators found about half of the estimated 80 cars in one South L.A. patrol division were missing antennas, which help capture what officers say in the field. The antennas in at least 10 more cars in nearby divisions had also been removed.
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and other top officials learned of the problem last summer but chose not to investigate which officers were responsible. Rather, the officials issued warnings against continued meddling and put checks in place to account for antennas at the start and end of each patrol shift.
Members of the Police Commission, which oversees the department, were not briefed about the problem until months later. In interviews with The Times, some commissioners said they were alarmed by the officers' attempts to conceal what occurred in the field, as well as the failure of department officials to come forward when the problem first came to light.
"On an issue like this, we need to be brought in right away," commission President Steve 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 said there was no deliberate attempt to keep the commission in the dark, saying the failure to alert the board was "unintentional."
"The department did not try to hide this issue," Beck said, emphasizing that he has been a vocal advocate for the in-car video cameras that rely on the antennas.
Commissioner Robert Saltzman said he plans to ask department officials to answer questions publicly about how they handled the issue at a meeting this month.
The cameras, which turn on automatically whenever an officer activates the car's emergency lights and sirens or can be activated manually, are used to record traffic stops and other encounters that occur in front of the vehicle. Officers also wear small transmitters on their belts that relay their voices back to the antennas in the patrol car. Regardless of whether they are in front of the camera, officers' voices can be recorded hundreds of yards away from the car, said Sgt. Dan Gomez, a department expert on the recording devices.
The distance an officer can roam and still be recorded depends on what buildings and other objects are interfering with the signal. 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.
Most of the antennas were removed from cars in the Southeast Division, which covers Watts, Jordan Downs and Nickerson Gardens, where relations between police and minority communities have historically been marred by mistrust and claims of officer abuse. The in-car video cameras have been touted as a powerful deterrent to police misconduct and a tool for defending officers against false accusations.
A federal judge last year formally ended more than a decade of close monitoring of the LAPD by the U.S. Department of Justice. The judge agreed to lift the oversight, in part, after city and police leaders made assurances that the LAPD had adequate safeguards, such as the cameras, in place to monitor itself.
The first sign of a problem came in early July when a Southeast supervisor noticed the cameras in a few patrol cars were missing antennas, said Cmdr. Andrew Smith, a spokesman for Beck. Vehicles are equipped with two small antennas, one for each of the officers assigned to the car.
After the supervisor's discovery, a check of the entire fleet of cars in Southeast and the other divisions in the department's South Bureau was done. With a total of about 160 antennas installed in Southeast Division vehicles, 72 had been removed, Smith said. Twenty antennas from cars in other divisions were missing as well.
Because cars in the Southeast Division had been equipped with cameras since 2010 and different shifts of officers use the same car each day, officials decided an investigation into the missing antennas would have been futile, according to Smith and Capt. Phil Tingirides, the commanding officer of the Southeast Division.
Instead, warnings went out at roll-call meetings throughout South Bureau, and new rules were put in place requiring officers to document that both antennas were in place at the beginning and end of each shift. To guard against officers removing the antennas during their shifts, Tingirides said he requires patrol supervisors to make unannounced checks on cars.
"We took the situation very seriously. But because the chances of determining who was responsible was so low we elected to … move on," Smith said, adding that it cost the department about $1,500 to replace all the antennas.
Since the new protocols went into place, only one antenna has been found missing, Smith said.
Soboroff said Beck briefed him on the problem in September and assured him it had been resolved. Around the same time, the commission's inspector general, Alex Bustamante, learned of the antennas and opened an investigation, commission records show.
The department has not identified any cases in which poor audio quality left officials unable to judge whether an officer had acted appropriately, Smith said. It is impossible, however, to know if conversations were not recorded at all because of missing antennas.
Poor recordings during a shooting investigation drew the attention of commission members in February. They were puzzled why several cameras in cars at the scene had poor audio quality, while another had good, clear recordings. Even though the recorded conversations did not seem germane to the incident, the commissioners asked for answers about the problem.
Last month, the department conducted a follow-up audit and found that dozens of the transmitters worn by officers in Southeast Division were missing or damaged.
This time, department officials opted to open a formal investigation into whether officers broke or lost the devices intentionally, Smith said.