In part two of TownSquareBuzz.com‘s interview with former McKinney police officer Aaron Smith, Smith said he ran into more problems while working his assignment – that of being in charge of the department’s fleet of vehicles.
In part one, Smith told TSB that McKinney Police Chief Joe Williams instructed him to remove the functioning Panasonic in-car video systems and replace them with the newly acquire WatchGuard video equipment. Smith said he discovered problems with the new equipment that did not function properly, often leaving officers without video they needed for evidence.
But the in-car video equipment with the faulty cables was just one aspect of his job that Smith had to deal with on a continual basis during his last year with the McKinney Police Department in 2013. Smith said he found two separate problems with the radar units in the police department.
First, Smith said he found police cars in which the radar wasn’t calibrated correctly, going back to 2007. Smith said that radar is usually calibrated every year, but for some reason that calibration hadn’t been done in McKinney. Smith said it had been “a long time” since they had been re-calibrated.
“When I tested the vehicles, 33 percent of our radars failed. I sent an email to all police, including the vehicle number, telling them if you drive any of these particular cars, don’t write speeding tickets. I was told that it wasn’t my job to share that information,” Smith said.
Williams said during an interview, “There was no malfunctioning radar systems. Once a year we test and have them calibrated — there’s no requirement, but it’s best practice. Every year a few 0f them (vehicles) fail due to a frayed cable, or bad antenna or something like that. It doesn’t mean that the radar wasn’t functioning. I’ve been in this business 20-some-odd years, and on a daily basis officers test the radar. ”
Then in early September of 2013, Smith said he became aware of another issue. In some of the police units, the radar was not reading the speeds of other vehicles correctly due to a missing cable.
Smith said he was driving one of the police vehicles when he realized that there was a problem with the radar accurately calculating the speed of oncoming vehicles.
“What I was seeing was doubling. You take my speed and the speed of the car coming at me and the radar was combining the two speeds together. If I was going 60 miles an hour and the oncoming car was also going 60 miles an hour, the radar would register 120 miles an hour. I knew that wasn’t right,” Smith said.
“This problem comes into play when the vehicle is moving,” Smith said. “The radar sends out a pulse that bounces off the street and comes back and that’s how it determines the speed. The problem is that in an urban environment, there are buildings, there are signs, there are other cars moving in different directions and coming at you. Without the radar having a point of reference, the radar can get confused. There is cosine effect, shadowing, combining, etc. These are documented problems with radar. I was in the navy and I worked on radar so I’m familiar with it. Cars have an internal system that tells you how fast your are going. That is supposed to be connected to the radar so the speed can be calibrated using an algorithm.”
A cable goes from the radar unit into LBD port underneath the driver’s steering wheel. Smith said that although he didn’t finish the complete audit, he found about 14 cars that didn’t have the cable.
Smith said, “I found all these cars that weren’t even wired. I documented the cars. Then I talked to the people at Applied Concepts, which makes the Stalker radar (that the department uses) and asked for documentation on the problems that can occur if the radar systems are not connected with the cables. The company gave the me documentation.”
TSB obtained an email between Deputy Chief Scott Brewer and Officer Smith dated Sept. 6, 2013, that validates Smith’s claim. Having inspected 35 cars out of the police fleet, Smith documented 14 in which the vehicle speed sensor was not connected to the radar unit.
Smith said, “Not having the VSS cables can cause erroneous patrol speed readings. Wrong patrol speed calculations will cause everything else to be wrong. Applied Concepts (Stalker Radar) highly recommends that these cables be installed. That could be why they are part of the radar kit when you order one.”
Documentation from Applied Concepts (Stalker Radar)
Smith said, “The cables were $100, but Deputy Chief Brewer said I’d have to wait till October 1 (2013) of the new fiscal year to order those. I suggested (via email to Brewer) we talk to municipal courts and let them know. I never heard back.
According to Smith, the potential legal ramifications of the malfunctioning radar equipment could be far reaching. If an officer stop a citizen with the probable cause speeding, that traffic stop can be dismissed because it was illegal due to faulty equipment. If an officer uses a speeding stop to search a vehicle and finds evidence of drugs, the entire case would be inadmissible because the probable cause in inaccurate.
Williams told TSB said he was not aware of any cases of speeding that had been dismissed due to stops that were made with faulty radar.
“The thing that bothered me the most is that there were cars (police) out there writing tickets whose radar wasn’t functioning properly,” Smith said. ” This administration gives me tools and those tools are supposed to give officers tools that function properly. When you know that equipment isn’t functioning correctly, you take them off the street, or do something.”
Smith said, “I told Brian (Mayor Brian Loughmiller) I’ve seen companies waste money left and right, and being a taxpayer; I hate to see us waste $800,000 just wasted here, but I have more problem sleeping at night thinking that there are probably people here who are eking out an existence, but they have been written a ticket. We’ll survive over an $800,000 mistake, but you can destroy people’s lives over a $400 to $500 ticket. In some cases the individual stopped didn’t deserve a ticket. Officers are trying to do the best they can with a piece of equipment that isn’t 100 percent.”
“I felt that this was more appalling than the entire video (WatchGuard) deal. The possibility of making a mistake — that’s what we try not to do in our job — we try to be accurate in our job,” Smith said.
When questioned about the faulty radar readings due to lack of a cable attachment, Williams said, “If I have any of them (radar units) that we knew were not functioning properly, we are going to pull them out of service. We are not going to write somebody a ticket, knowing that we have a bad device. Aaron (Smith) is speaking to several different issues, one being the variable speed cable sensor that the manufacturer recommends to be placed on some of these radar units to eliminate a phenomenon that sometimes occurs with radar. Every radar operator knows through training what that phenomenon is.
“This cable just eliminates the potential for that phenomenon, but it’s been existing since radar was introduced in the police world and we all know how to handle it. It’s (the cable) an enhancement. We’ve talked to Stalker. They have told us that you don’t have to include that cable, it just eliminates that phenomenon. We have included that cable on our new vehicles. The vehicles that do have those radar units (without cables), I’m told, are coming out of service. We have not knowingly ever written a speeding ticket using faulty equipment. ”
Smith disputes William’s comments that “the vehicles with faulty units are coming out of service”. Smith told TSB that to his knowledge, five or six 2011 vehicles have less than 50,000 miles on them, so the department would not replace them at this point. He also said that during his tenure with MPD, there was never a mandatory operators course for the using the radar equipment.
Due to health and family issues, Smith said he went on FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act) in September and didn’t return until two weeks prior to his resignation on Dec. 31.
In an email to TSB and the McKinney Watchdog, Smith said, “I never went back to MPD until my last two weeks where I was on light duty and only could work four hours a day. I reemphasized then that this issue (with the radar cables) needs to be addressed and it again fell on deaf ears. It was MPD’s administrations responsibility to get this addressed. I wasn’t there to get this corrected so they should have assigned someone else to it. It wasn’t from a lack of information from me. Chief Williams and down the chain of command was aware of this. This is the definition of gross negligence by MPD administration!”
“There’s no avenue to vent. The McKinney Police Association is a joke. There’s no opportunity for whistle blowing. This is the good old boy system,” Smith said. “We (the police department leaders) have this mentality that we know it all. We have this opportunity to learn from other bigger cities, but we don’t.”