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LAPD cites dire need for new radios

July 31, 2007|Richard Winton | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Police Department has long prided itself on its cutting-edge technology.

But when it comes to the hand-held radios that beat cops use each day to communicate, the department is stuck in the past, according to a report to be presented today to the Police Commission.

The LAPD's portable radio system has far exceeded its lifespan, functions on cannibalized parts and is only minimally reliable, Chief William J. Bratton states in the report.

He paints a dire picture of the department's 10,500 hand-held ASTRO radios -- the backbone of the LAPD's communications system -- as a dinosaur of a radio system that has not been manufactured in five years. It is so outdated, the report states, that Motorola will stop making any parts for it beginning in December.

Many officers said they now use their own cellphones for some field communications because the radios are too cumbersome and unreliable.

With officers expressing growing concerns about the radio system, Police Commissioner Alan Skobin demanded that the department produce a report on the situation.

During a recent ride-along in North Hollywood, Skobin said he had to lend his radio to a supervisor during a man-with-a-gun call because the sergeant's radio did not work.

"My radio issued at the station didn't work properly either. But it worked well enough to direct officers," Skobin said. "If a supervisor cannot coordinate officers in a man-with-a-gun call, that is not only endangering the officers but the public."

Skobin said he also knows of an officer in South L.A. whose radio failed during a foot pursuit.

When the Police Commission reviews officer shooting incidents weekly, Skobin said officers often say they made a call on the radio but others didn't hear it. He said there are so many that he suspects some are because of faulty radios.

Councilman Dennis Zine, a veteran LAPD officer now working as a reserve, said he experienced a radio failure while working with the fugitive warrant detail in South Los Angeles a few months ago.

"We were on a take-down of a suspect where it was vital to know where all the potential suspects are, when I went to activate the radio and it didn't activate," he said.

Later, Zine said, he learned that the battery connection was defective.

Zine said the department's priorities need to be officer safety -- guns, vests, radios -- and too often the basics are ignored in favor of expanding specialized units.

"The radio is the umbilical cord of communications to the operators and other officers," he said. "That could be a life-threatening situation. We are in desperate need of a new system. The radios are obsolete."

In his report, Bratton is asking the Police Commission to ensure that the city makes funding of new radios a priority in upcoming budget years, and in the interim to implement an aggressive maintenance program.

"The current status of ASTRO radios and mechanisms for in-house repair with minimum parts available and no support from Motorola and cannibalizing existing radios for parts have become a significant challenge," Bratton said in his report.

The department has already begun to replace the LAPD car radios, but there is no money in the city budget for the hand-held radios.

According to Bratton's report, the department had to cannibalize more than 100 radios for parts last year.

At least 80 to 100 are repaired weekly.

Skobin said waiting until next year may be too late, adding that he favors action now.

Skobin said he would like to see radios issued to all 9,500 officers instead of having them distributed from the equipment room when officers are on duty.

"Every officer should have a radio, on and off duty. Whether it is a disaster -- natural or otherwise -- or an accident or crime in progress, instantaneous communications by an officer with police would be a force multiplier," he said.

The radio problems come as Bratton has vowed to use the latest technology to fight crime, including Compstat, a sophisticated computer-based system that tracks crimes throughout the city.

But for some officers, the easiest way to communicate is with their cellphones.

"In the last year, I've have seen a huge increase in the use of cellphones. It is much easier to get on a cellphone and talk," said Officer Jack Richter, who says he has not experienced radio failure.

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