PALMER PARK – An audit authorized by the Prince George’s County Police Chief Mark Magaw in early 2015 found that 30 percent of its in-car cameras are not functioning properly.
Captain Bill Alexander, commander of the administrative investigation section, said 317 police vehicles have malfunctioning cameras.
“Part of the reason that we found ourselves in this spot is because in the early 2000s there were budget problems in Prince George’s County. So we weren’t replacing older parts with newer parts at the rate we expected,” Alexander said.
According to PGPD, the department currently has a fleet of 1,048 cars. Approximately half of the cruisers are equipped with older Kustom DVD-based systems. Nearly 500 are equipped with newer hard drive-based Panasonic systems. At the time they were inspected, roughly 40 of the Panasonic systems exhibited hardware or software malfunctions. All of these malfunctions are repairable and covered under a maintenance plan. Roughly half of the Kustom systems are not working properly. The PGPD is now finalizing plans to hire a full-time technician to work solely on the Kustom camera repairs, to fix those that can be and remove those that can’t since parts for these aging systems are no longer available.
When citizens see police cars with cameras inside, Magaw said, they expect the dashboard cameras to work. The police department expects that as well, he said.
“If the camera isn’t and can’t be fixed, we are going to remove those broken cameras altogether,” Magaw said. “We’re devoted to constitutional, ethical and professional policing. We want our community to know where we currently stand in our car camera systems and where we’re going.”
In early 2015, Alexander said, a “number of units” were failing and Kustom could not repair them because they no longer made parts for DVD-based camera systems. The police department is not unhappy with Kustoms’ service, he said, but technology has moved on.
The cameras each cost about $5,500, he said. The department wants 100 percent of their cruisers working with operational cameras, Alexander said, because they are a valuable tool that offers transparency and safety to the public and the police department.
About 100 of the cars without operational cameras will be phased out by the end of 2015, Alexander said. There are also 25 cars that have been identified with functional cameras that are not in the field, he said. Those cars will be shifted into the field, he said, which would reduce the amount of cars without functional cameras.
The department is also going to look at the remaining cars to determine how much “shelf life” they have left in them, Alexander said. Once that is determined, the department will hire a Kustom agent to strip cameras from those cars to add the parts to cars without functional cameras that still have shelf life in them.
“Those cars that we feel like have two to three years life left, we’re going to replace the cameras with a new Panasonic unit and those cars will return to service,” Alexander said. “Those cars that we don’t feel like have enough life to justify the investment will not be getting new cameras.”
By the end of 2015, Alexander said, the department hopes to increase the amount of cruisers with functioning cameras from 70 percent to “85 or 90 percent.” By the end of 2016, Alexander said, the department expects to have 100 percent of their cruisers operating with functional cameras after 100 new cruisers are obtained and made operational.
The department used the DVD-based system up, originally installed in 2004, until 2010 before switching to Panasonic hard drive camera recorders. The original Kustom systems came with a three year warranty, Alexander said, and maintenance contracts were renewed annually after the warranty expired.
The death of officer Rabain highlighted the need to find out the status of the cameras in the police car fleet, Alexander said. After dying in a fatal accident while trying to pull over a vehicle while off-duty, officers discovered Rabain’s dashboard camera did not function properly and could not determine what violation the person Rabain chased committed.
“The investigation of that collision revealed that his camera did not activate as it should have when he activated his lights,” Alexander said. “So certainly that was a note, in addition to the overriding factor of how many cameras we have that we think cannot be repaired.”
It is frustrating, Alexander said, for the police department to find out that there could have been video of officer Rabain’s accident if his camera did not malfunction.
“Nobody is as frustrated as we are,” Alexander said. “We are as disappointed as the community is about this. We want that video to be there. This is not a case of us trying to lower the number of cameras in our operation. Our goal has always been to have 100 percent of our cameras operating.”
The department had to use their cruisers for a longer amount of time than anticipated, Alexander said, because of budget constraints. They did not want to spend “tens of thousands and maybe even millions,” of dollars to replace cameras or put a new camera in a car that would not be used in a year or 18 months, Alexander said.
This can be avoided, he said, as long as the county can provide the police department with a new allotment of cars each year. PGPD budgets to receive 100 cars during budget proceedings, Alexander said, and the county has done a good job of providing them with the funding for it over the last few years.
Since County Executive Rushern Baker III has been in office, Alexander said, the police department has gotten funds for new cars every single year. As that continues, he said, the county’s police department will not be in this position again.