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Preckwinkle axes troubled ‘Project Shield’


Updated: July 1, 2011 7:00PM

Seven years and $44 million questionably spent federal dollars later, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on Thursday pulled the plug on “Project Shield,” a failed Homeland Security program initiated and continued by her two predecessors, John and Todd Stroger.

A Chicago Sun-Times/NBC5 News investigation over the past three years highlighted a litany of problems with the program, including serious technical glitches, significant cost overruns and the hiring of clout-heavy sub-contractors with dubious performance records.

“The problems in the Project Shield program have been well-documented in the past and we undertook a careful review of the problems in light of those issues,” Preckwinkle said at a press conference Thursday outside her office.

“The system was . . . ill-conceived, poorly designed and badly executed,” said Mike Masters, Cook County director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Born out of the 9/11 attacks, Project Shield was a federally funded urban initiative to equip 128 municipal police departments in Cook County with cameras in squad cars and at stationary locations capable of sending live video back to command centers in the event of a terrorist attack or natural disaster.

The only disaster, it turned out, was Project Shield itself. After equipment failures and frustration from area police chiefs, IBM, the first contractor, was released by the county. A second contractor, Johnson Controls International, had no better success in creating an operational system, according to Preckwinkle and Masters.

Moreover, decisions were made by administrators at the Cook County Building without consulting chiefs of police who had the “boots on the ground,” Masters said.

In 2009, U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, a former county commissioner, asked the General Accounting Office for an investigation, calling Cook County’s handling of Project Shield “a scandal.”

Quigley and then-Congressman, now-Sen. Mark Kirk, jointly requested another probe by the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security.

NBC5 and the Sun-Times first reported last year that federal auditors, in turn, requested that the FBI enter the investigation. The FBI has declined to comment.

Preckwinkle and Masters on Thursday revealed yet another Project Shield problem: the safety of the officers driving the cars equipped with cameras. If airbags were deployed, Masters said, the computer and camera could become projectiles — potentially injuring officers. In seven years, he said, no one had noticed that egregious flaw.

The county is ordering that contractors immediately remove the equipment from every police vehicle — and reassessing its entire approach to issues of homeland security.

Meanwhile, the federal investigations into Project Shield are continuing.

Carol Marin is a Sun-Times columnist. Don Moseley is an NBC5 producer.

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