Watchdog: Park Police communications went unrecorded for two years

The U.S. Park Police is required to record all radio and telephone communications, but a government watchdog found two of the department’s three radio channels went unrecorded for about two years because the recording equipment had stopped working.

The review by the Department of the Interior Office of Inspector General (DOI OIG) was triggered in June 2020, after U.S. Park Police (USPP) discovered it had not recorded radio communications during an operation to clear protesters from Lafayette Park in D.C. in June 2020.

The protesters had gathered near the White House in a series of mostly peaceful demonstrations between May 29 and June 3, 2020, after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody on May 25, 2020.

The DOI requirement to record radio and phone communications allows dispatchers to play back radio transmissions or phone calls in an emergency. The recordings can also provide evidence for prosecutors.

Despite this requirement, the OIG report found that Park Police failed to record radio communications on the admin channel from October 2018 through June 2020, and on the special event channel from at least March 2018 through August 2020. Radio communications on Park Police’s primary dispatch channel were continuously recorded during that time period, the OIG report found.

The watchdog review does not suggest any intentional wrongdoing.

“We found that the USPP’s analog recorder appeared to have stopped fully working some time in 2018 and that because the USPP did not have any policies or procedures ensuring that it monitored its recorder, it did not discover the deficiency until June 2020 when USPP officials requested recordings from the June 1 operation,” the report said.

The OIG report uncovered other technical difficulties.

The watchdog found evidence that Park Police obtained a digital recorder in September 2018 to upgrade the analog system, “but insufficient planning, delays in obtaining necessary security approvals, and installation challenges resulted in USPP relying on its outdated analog recorder until October 2020, when it installed the digital recorder.”

And even then, there were equipment failures.

The OIG said USPP believed the new digital equipment was capturing all radio communications; however, the evidence revealed it did not record any radio communications for another two weeks.

The USPP digital recording system has been working seamlessly since Oct. 23, 2020, the report said, but the recorder still does not comply with DOI policy, because USPP has not set it up to instantly play back the recorded communications in emergencies. In addition, the OIG finds USPP continued to face technical challenges, “to include monitoring and maintenance, records retention and IT approvals.”

Before installing the digital recording equipment in October 2020, the OIG found Park Police used an ineffective recording solution from August through October that did not comply with DOI policy.

“We confirmed several instances in which officers sought recordings in connection with criminal prosecutions that occurred while this temporary recording solution was in place, but the USPP could not successfully fulfill those requests,” the report said.

Other technical problems uncovered by the review include an issue that prevents Park Police from accessing the stored recordings on the analog recorder, “so the USPP cannot meet its records retention obligations for recordings on that device.”

Moving forward, the OIG recommends the USPP develop policies that “define roles and responsibilities for maintaining and monitoring dispatch center IT equipment.” It also recommends the department implement equipment features that can assist with system monitoring and retention of the recordings, as well as obtaining IT approvals for all dispatch center equipment and performing required equipment maintenance to ensure compliance with DOI policy.

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