By Brian Maass

AURORA, Colo. (CBS4) – Taxpayers spent nearly $100,000 to buy the Aurora Police Department 11 sophisticated dashboard-mounted cameras to help secure DUI and traffic convictions, but a CBS4 Investigation found the cameras have rarely worked. Officers say they weren’t ever trained to use them and didn’t even have basic credentials to log on and turn the cameras on.

“It was essentially a big paperweight. I couldn’t get it to do anything,” said Aurora Police Officer Everett Williams of his patrol car’s dash camera system in court testimony unearthed by the CBS4 probe.

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But his take on his $9,000 in-car camera wasn’t even the most damning. Other officers say their dashboard mounted cameras never worked, were not repaired and officers were never trained in how to turn them on and use them.

“I can’t use the dash camera system. It doesn’t work,” reported Officer Todd Sarntson who was part of APD’s DUI unit. He said in a year and a half of making DUI arrests, not once did his dashboard mounted camera record a DUI stop — videotaped evidence that helps with officer safety and can be crucial in securing DUI convictions.

“I could turn it on, but I don’t know how to log into it. I can’t use something if I have not been trained on how to do it,” said Sarntson.

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Charles Fife, a criminal defense attorney, told CBS4 the inoperable dash cameras were actually backfiring, and allowing some suspected drunk drivers to go free. He cited the case of Lydale Richard, 45, who was pulled over by Aurora Officer Ryan Marker May 29, 2016.

Marker was prolific at DUI arrests, making hundreds every year and earning annual accolades and awards for his DUI arrests. Marker said Richard had been weaving, failed to use a turn signal and hadn’t activated his blinker.

After making the stop, Marker — whose car was equipped with a COBAN dash camera system — asked Richard if he had been drinking. Richard — who has previous DUI convictions —  denied that was the case, but Marker said he could smell alcohol, Richard’s speech was slurred and his eyes were bloodshot and watery. Richard declined to perform voluntary roadside sobriety tests and was arrested for DUI.

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He also declined to take a blood or breath alcohol test. Richard claimed the reasons for the stop were trumped up and that he had used his blinker and had not been weaving. He insisted he had not been drinking.

But when the case went to trial in 2017, Marker testified that there was no video from his dash camera because the unit had been “inoperable” on the night in question. That video would have shown the “probable cause” that led to the DUI stop. Fife said jurors became suspicious of the lack of video and within a half hour, the jury acquitted Richard of all charges.

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“If there’s not a legal basis for the stop”, said Fife. ”The case would get thrown out. The dash cam videos would show there was not a legal basis for the stop.”

In April 2017, Marker signed a sworn affidavit saying his in-car camera had not worked for at least seven months from 2016 into 2017.

Marker also testified that for nearly his entire time as a member of the Aurora Police Department’s DUI unit, his dash camera “did not work.. there was no hard drive in it for a very long time. I didn’t even have a log in or a password that would allow me to access it if I turned it on.”

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The department obtained 11 cameras in 2007 via a federal grant. But Lt. Dan Mcclelland of the Aurora Police Department’s electronic support section testified that at least half of the dash cameras had problems working.

”And these were just the problems that were bad enough that we shipped it back to the company,” said Mcclelland.

When CBS4 notified the Aurora Police Department last November of the problems with the dash cameras, the department announced it was initiating an internal affairs investigation, but declined to answer specific questions. ‘

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“Due to recent allegations that were raised on specific in-car camera issues from 2016, there is currently an active internal investigation related to in-car camera use. The Aurora Police Department cannot comment on details surrounding that investigation because it remains an open investigation,” said APD Sgt. William Hummel.

The department released the following statement regarding its in-car camera systems:

The Aurora Police Department has approximately 200 vehicles that support daily public safety operations.  The vast majority of our vehicles do not have the in-car camera technology. Currently, the APD has in-car camera systems installed in 11 different patrol vehicles that are specifically assigned to the APD Traffic Section. 

Since adopting the limited number of in-car camera systems, there have been varying technical issues. Maintenance of the system has been handled by the APD’s Electronic Support Section, the City’s Radio Shops, and City IT.  However, the Aurora Police Department does not have personnel who specialize in working on the in-car camera systems, which has resulted in challenges in sustaining the existing equipment.  Recently, a sergeant from APD’s Traffic Section attended a ‘train the trainer’ course that centered on the functionality and maintenance of these camera systems.  We have learned there have been recurring issues with the batteries that are installed within the camera systems and it is believed that this issue is responsible for camera malfunction over a significant period of time. 

The few in-car camera systems pre-date the start of APD’s body-worn camera program.  Because the Aurora Police Department now equips 497 of its officers with body-worn cameras, the in-car camera systems are being phased out. With the advent of APD’s body-worn camera program, some inherent confusion existed within the group of officers who were now equipped with an in-car camera system and a body-worn camera.  The APD Traffic Section updated existing policies in April 2017 clarifying that the in-car camera system should be activated along with a body-worn camera. 

Due to recent allegations that were raised on specific in-car camera issues from 2016, there is currently an active internal investigation related to in-car camera use.  The Aurora Police Department cannot comment on details surrounding that investigation because it remains an open investigation.

Year to date, the Aurora Police Department has issued over 36,000 traffic summonses and the large majority of those contacts are not recorded on an in-car camera system, but are recorded on a body-worn camera.  Traffic safety and enforcement remain a priority for our community, where there have been 31 traffic-related fatalities thus far in 2018.

The department also said it is now phasing out the dash cams completely.

Brian Maass