The handheld radios used by University Police Department officers to communicate cross-campus have been dysfunctional to the point of uselessness for at least a year, six officers told The Hatchet this week – a claim their top leader denies.
The officers said the devices, used to alert dispatchers and supervisors or call for backup, are so choppy that attempts to communicate with the rest of the unit often fail, potentially raising the level of risk on campus during times when officers have only seconds to notify others of a crime or suspect.
“It has severely affected campus safety, because if a serious incident happens, depending on where you are, you cannot advise other officers or the dispatcher,” one officer said, speaking on the condition of anonymity as UPD officers are not authorized to speak to the media.
The radios’ spotty performance showed last week, the officers said, when a freshman tried to escape from a Thurston Hall drug bust, punching a UPD officer in the face along the way. Three officers attempted to use their radios throughout the chase to reach UPD’s dispatcher and request backup, but each effort fell flat, one officer who was at the scene said. Officers later learned that just two to four words from the messages were intelligible by the other end.
“The only reason they knew something was wrong was because of the voice tone they heard. They heard the voice tone and location, nothing else,” the officer said. “If the suspect would have continued to fight, flee or resist arrest, the two responding officers could have been seriously injured with no way of alerting anyone.”
UPD Chief Kevin Hay maintained Tuesday that the handheld radios are in working condition, and many of the department’s 48 devices have never been reported as malfunctioning.
He declined to say specifically how many have been reported as malfunctioning.
“A few will degrade over time, but are usually repairable,” Hay said, adding that it is impossible for police departments to receive 100-percent radio coverage at all times because service quality is based on an area’s topography, the size of the building where an officer is located and whether or not the individual is underground.
Two officers said they notified supervisors of radio troubles on multiple occasions but saw no improvements. One said “nothing happens” and, though the department maintains that devices or batteries that are out of order will be replaced or fixed, the malfunctioning radios appear in the supply stack again the next day.
UPD’s contractor for communication devices investigates each report of a malfunctioning radio, Hay said.
The technician who services UPD’s radios, Jonathan Padi, said Tuesday that the University has resisted spending money on its current radio supply in anticipation of purchasing new technology after the department shifts out of its Woodhull House headquarters and into the Academic Center. Administrators have said they expect that move to take place this spring or early summer.
“While they’re trying to go to the new system, the situation has just dragged on and on,” Padi, who works for Communications Express, said.
GW purchased its current radios in 2002 and their batteries have been replaced every few years, he said. The average lifespan of a battery is 18 to 24 months. Each battery can only be recharged for a certain time span before it burns out and its charging capacity shrinks, similar to cell phone batteries.
Padi said UPD has not been replacing its radio batteries as often as necessary.
When radio batteries are heavily depleted in a police unit where individuals are constantly patrolling shift after shift, Padi said officers on later patrols face a “disaster” because they are left with a barely charged battery.
“As far as public safety is concerned, this is a very serious issue and we have been working with the officers as best as we can,” Padi said.
The University asked Padi to visit campus Wednesday to inspect the radios, he said.
“It’s primarily concerns with the battery that appears to be the weakest link in their system,” he said, adding that all analog radio systems face some level of static. “The issue is not widespread.”
Padi found one problem area: Ivory Tower. A few buildings have sprung up near Ivory since the radio system was installed, creating interference that hampers coverage inside the residence hall that can be solved either by pouring more money into the current technology or waiting for the overhaul, he said.
He plans to return to campus next week to test every battery and radio.
About 40 percent of the University’s radio batteries are on the older side, while roughly 60 percent are new, he estimated.
“If any radio is broken, we will find out. If any battery is weak, we will know,” Padi said, adding that disgruntled officers may exaggerate the extent of the static out of frustration.
Hay said the bases for new radio technology that will be installed at the Academic Center are a response to new Federal Communications Commission guidelines for law enforcement agencies’ radios – not due to nonworking equipment – and that it makes “little sense” to install the system into the Woodhull House only to uproot it later. The FCC’s guidelines are set to go into effect next January.
“I care deeply about all of my officers and about their ability to communicate with the dispatcher and their fellow responders,” Hay said. “That’s why we maintain a maintenance contract to fix portable radios that have a reported problem. That is why we recently replaced a large number of batteries.”
Forensic criminologist and police practices legal expert Ron Martinelli said adequate communication is critical for public safety operations, and the University would be liable for negligence if an officer responded to a high-risk scene, called for backup and landed a severe injury due to radio failure.
“If you have anything from a disturbance to an active shooter on campus, who are the people that are responding? Your public safety people,” Martinelli said. “Somebody needs to step forward and say, ‘Wait a minute, we’re placing our officers at risk with these 2002 radios.’”
This article appeared in the February 2, 2012 issue of the Hatchet.