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Area towns have mixed reports on experience with Project Shield

Updated: February 20, 2012 8:18AM

At least two west suburban communities found no problems with camera equipment from Project Shield in the wake of a federal investigation calling the $45 million Homeland Security program a waste of taxpayer dollars.

But a third community concurred with some findings of the Office of the Inspector General criticizing the project for malfunctioning equipment, lack of training, mismanagement and lack of oversight.

“The concept was certainly something we bought into, heart and soul,” said LaGrange Park Police Chief Daniel McCollum.

“But there were a series of long protracted delays getting our equipment,” McCollum said. “We were never completely satisfied with the efficiency of the in-car camera. We had a myriad of problems.”

Without any video cameras in the department’s squad cars, LaGrange Park officials had eagerly looked forward to participating in what was initially called Project Gold Shield, which promised stationery video cameras and mobile units for two squad cars.

When cameras finally arrived during the project’s third phase in 2009, the results were disappointing, McCollum said.

“The system just never worked as it was promised,” said Deputy Police Chief Phil Kubisztal. “We were supposed to be able to recall a traffic stop, but I don’t ever remember seeing a successful recording ever being done.

“It was supposed to stream live video of an officer on a traffic stop. I don’t ever remember that working properly.”

McCollum also said the program wasn’t managed well.

“It seemed the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing. There was a lot of passing the buck and multiple phone calls to get anything answered,” he said. “It was dysfunctional. The Inspector General’s report was really critical, and I think there’s some validity to that.”

While La Grange and Western Springs didn’t encounter problems with the squad car cameras, the mobile unit was used in more of a secondary capacity. Both communities already had been using cameras installed in squad cars for years, representatives said.

“We felt it was very successful at our end,” said Western Springs Deputy Police Chief Brian Budds. “We did not have any problems with the car camera or the laptop computers.”

Budds said the department installed the camera in a supervisor’s car, designated to arrive at any emergency situations to stream video.

“We never used it in real time, but we did train our personnel with it,” Budds said. “It was successful.”

La Grange Police Chief Michael Holub said it didn’t make sense that communities could choose not to participate.

“The concept of one central location for distribution of information seemed like a really good idea to me,” he said. “The idea was for someone in Cook County being able to look at a crime scene from the eyes of the responding unit camera or the exterior camera.”

After the program was discontinued with the new Cook County administration of Toni Preckwinkle, the mobile units were removed in the fall from squads in LaGrange Park, Western Springs and La Grange. But stationary cameras and monitoring equipment are still in place.

“We have one camera in front of the police station and one at 800 Hillgrove Avenue, a two-story building with an advantageous position from a tactical standpoint,” Budds said. “The camera pans along the tracks and train station and the area at Wolf Road.

“Those cameras are monitored by the on-duty dispatch 24/7.”

Holub said the camera on a radio tower behind the police station in La Grange also is an asset to police.

“We use that exterior camera all the time. You can pan and tilt it, zoom in and see the roof exterior of a building,” he said.

Although Project Shield cameras were made available at no financial cost to participating communities, McCollum noted an investment of time involved, as well as a lost opportunity.

Because of the units’ streaming video capabilities, McCollum said he looked forward to piloting a program to conduct remote bond hearings at the LaGrange Park Police Station, rather than transporting arrestees to Cook County Circuit Court.

“This would have been the perfect opportunity with just a little bit of imagination to convert the system so we could have bond hearings at the station like other parts of the country,” the chief said. “All the technology was in place to teleconference with someone in the court house.”

Were communities safer after participating in Project Shield?

“If the technology had worked as promised, we would have been,” Kubisztal said.

Aside from the video streaming capability, McCollum said he’s not a fan of surveillance cameras, though he appreciates technology.

“The police car traveling around with the vigilant police officer is much more valuable than having cameras to replace humans,” he said.

Budds said Project Shield was an asset to participating communities, particularly with the remaining stationary cameras.

“Technology seems to be evolving monthly, maybe even weekly,” he said. “We’re always cognizant of what’s out there, and there’s always room for improvement.”

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