Why Chicago Cop Videos Are Missing Audio

Laquan McDonald and Ronald Johnson were both killed by cops, and neither recording of their deaths has any sound. Were all the mics broken?

12.08.15 2:30 AM ET

CHICAGO — There are only two reasons why the dashcam videos showing Laquan McDonald and Ronald Johnson’s death have no audio, an investigation by The Daily Beast has determined.

Officers are not able to shut down audio recording in a dashcam system independently of video, Chicago Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi told the Beast via email.

That means that nearly all of the microphones in the five squad cars on scene the night of McDonald’s death and the microphones in a car for Johnson’s death were not functioning—or the audio in both cases was removed after police reviewed the footage.

The missing audio is so serious that it is the subject of an investigation by the Chicago Police Department’s Internal Affairs division, Guglielmi said.

“Internal Affairs will be sorting all this out and determining a cause for the non-functioning audio,” he wrote. “If any wrongdoing is discovered after the investigation, individuals will be held accountable.”

So far there is no evidence that video in both McDonald and Johnson’s deaths was doctored, but there is reason to believe microphones in these cases may not have been working.

Each squad car in the police department’s fleet is equipped with a microphone that records simultaneously with video, a review of technical information provided by the manufacturer of the system, Texas-based Coban Technology, shows. Two sources inside the Chicago Police Department said each squad is equipped with two microphones, which begin recording audio along with video the moment a car’s emergency lights are activated. Officers may also engage the recording system without activating the emergency lights, however, they are not able to record video without audio.

It is unclear if the sounds that can be heard in Van Dyke’s dashcam were picked up from a microphone or are the result of feedback as a result of the entire system being wired into the vehicle’s electrical system.

In all, there were 10 microphones that should have picked up audio the night of McDonald’s death, but as Van Dyke is seen emptying his gun, pumping 16 bullets into the dying teen, a pervasive silence envelopes the scene.

In addition to the microphones inside the cars—which like the cameras mounted to the dashboard begin recording as soon as the emergency lights are activated—each of the nine officers on scene that night had the ability to record audio with microphones attached to their duty belts.

Chicago police directive does not stipulate when officers should use those microphones. But a longtime sergeant at the department, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the McDonald case and the turmoil surrounding the department, said it is essentially up to individual officers when to record with their on-person microphones, such as collecting witness statements.

That is not the case for microphones inside squad cars. All 10 of the microphones in cars on scene the night of McDonald’s should have picked up something.

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Unless they were broken, that is, but that should have been discovered in an inspection at the beginning of the officers’ shifts, CPD directive mandates. That same directive, however, provides no punishment for failing to inspect equipment to make sure it is in proper working order.

“… deviations from Department policy observed through the review of digitally recorded data will not be subject to the disciplinary process and will be treated as a training opportunity,” the directive states.

Yet interim police Superintendent John Escalante, who replaced Garry McCarthy last week, said that the department has a “good policy in place.”

In fact, there is no system in place to discipline officers for failing to ensure their in-car camera systems—and the microphones attached to them—are in proper working order at the beginning of their shifts. Whether or not officers should even be blamed for broken or poorly maintained dashcam systems is a point of contention among some officers who say broken equipment is commonplace.

In the comments section of a recent post on Second City Cop, a public blog run and visited by many retired and current members of the Chicago Police Department, you can get a good grasp on the beefs with Escalante’s comments and those criticizing Van Dyke and the other officers for failing to ensure their dashcam systems were picking up audio.

“(Mics) are broken, lost. No one has audio. Cameras rendered to junk. Never repaired. This is being covered up, just like McDonald’s tape was covered up,” one anonymous cop wrote.

“Is any cop in that video wearing a mic on his lapel?” they asked in reference to the nine officers on scene the night McDonald was killed. “Is any cop anywhere wearing a mic on his lapel?”

All officers are supposed to wear on-person microphones, the directive says, which also allows officers to decide when to record with the devices.

The officers commenting on the Second City Cop post also blamed a highly flawed maintenance system for downed mics.

“There’s still plenty of cars without cameras or mics that the city is too financially irresponsible to replace,” one officer wrote.

Another expressed their frustration in trying to get their dashcam system repaired.

“Our camera hasn’t been working properly for the past few months. I have personally, and repeatedly, notified a (sergeant) to obtain a ticket number with no results,” an officer wrote. “I don’t understand the laziness.”

The directive that stipulates how and when audio and video are to be used appears to be entirely broken to the point of non-existence. With no way to punish officers or supervisors for failing to ensure dashcam systems are working, there is no teeth to the directive that governs their usage.

The release of another dashcam video showing the death of Ronald Johnson, who died eight days before McDonald last year, again came without audio. In releasing the footage, Cook County Attorney Anita Alvarez told reporters she did not know why the audio was missing.

“There should be audio,” she said Monday. “That is a problem for the Chicago Police Department, and I think they need to answer that.”

Guglielmi says the CPD is doing just that.

“Were committed to determine why the audio was missing so we’re not going to speculate on any aspect because the Justice Department is currently investigating any actions and statements of CPD officers in connection with this shooting,” Guglielmi said Saturday. “If the criminal investigation concludes that any officer participated in any wrongdoing, we will take swift action.”

Of the 395 pages of police reports related to McDonald’s death, there is no mention of the missing audio, and no statement from any of the officers on scene that night regarding their dashcam systems.

Maybe it’s not factually correct to say the missing audio is missing; maybe it’s more appropriate to say it never existed in the first place.