Sitting on the TSB interview couch, McKinney resident Aaron Smith comes across as intense. A former McKinney police officer, Smith is a compact, wiry man, who, at times during our conversation, becomes quite animated as he talks about situations that occurred during the last year of his tenure with the McKinney Police Department.
Fed up and stressed out with what he calls the “unethical and compromising” behavior from McKinney’s Chief of Police Joe Williams, Smith, who possesses a background in engineering, said he left the force at the end of last year to focus on a new technology business.
Smith said his anxiety and stress levels began to climb in 2013 when he was assigned to care for the fleet of police vehicles, which he described as “a huge mess” when he arrived. Police vehicles were out of commission, causing officers to double up on their beats. Unreliable video equipment was purchased and installed in police vehicles. Radar in many of the vehicles had not been calibrated correctly and then, Smith said, dealing with the Chief of Police became more and more difficult.
Getting the cars up and running was just the beginning of his job. He was also tasked with taking care of the camera equipment, the laptops (all police vehicles have a laptop) and the radios. Smith’s engineering background made him the perfect fit for the job.
But Smith says that getting the fleet back into full commission was the easy part. His “nightmare” began when the police department purchased new video equipment in 2013.
History of the police deparment video equipment:
Beginning in 2006, McKinney’s police department purchased in-car capture and retrieval video systems from Panasonic. Over the years, further purchases and upgrades made through Jan. 2013 came to a total of $415,000 of taxpayer dollars.
Panasonic account manager Chuck Garrett told TSB during a phone interview that he had a “very good” relationship with the Chief of Information Technology, Chris Chiancone. Garrett said that was not notified about any problems with the Panasonic system and that during a meeting with city leaders in Feb. of 2013, there was discussion of making the partnership between the City of McKinney and Panasonic a “living case study.”
During the May 6, 2013 City Council meeting, a purchase of the WatchGuard video equipment in the amount of $277,589 was approved.
In a May 9, 2013 email obtained by TSB, Garrett addresses then City Manager Jason Gray:
- At the meeting I arranged at the City’s request Monday February, 11th, 2013, at Rick’s Chop House with the President of Panasonic North America Rance Poehler (Citizen of McKinney), National Sales Manager Kay Stewart, Chuck Garrett Your Account Manager, Sheeba Bruning Panasonic National Marketing Manager, Jason Grey, City Manager, Jim Wehmeier -The Economic Development Manager of McKinney, CIO Chris Chiancone, and Deputy City Manager Rob Daake- we discussed the City’s total Satisfaction with not only our first-class products but our services. Chris Chiancone even commented that “The Level of service that Panasonic provides to the City of McKinney is Unparalleled, not found in many company’s these days”. During our dinner conversation you mentioned that you thought the idea of using McKinney as a “Living Case Study” for Panasonic technology was a great idea. In fact, you were the one who suggested that Panasonic and the City partner with the local Eco-friendly McKinney Company “Perfectly Green” (who generates clean electricity) due the eco-friendly idealism we all share.
Garrett told TSB that he was “blindsided” when he heard that council had approved the purchase of the WatchGuard equipment. He said he was not given any notification of the city’s intent to drop the Panasonic products and go with WatchGuard. Garrett said that he heard that the department “was concerned about needing high definition video,” and although Panasonic was about to release an upgraded software featuring high definition video in the summer of 2013, Garrett was not given an opportunity to present McKinney PD or the IT group information about upcoming software upgrades.
Further email communication between Panasonic’s Garrett and Gray stated:
- As the account manager for the City of McKinney I am involved on a weekly basis with the IT department and usually a police representative attends these meetings and visits- AT NO TIME was I ever approached about any dissatisfaction with McKinney’s Panasonic Arbitrator In Car and evidence management system. I worked extensively with the city to find the right solution both financially and technically due to the city’s budget challenges. Panasonic’s Arbitrator is the only company that supports all generations on Video Products with one server software platform. This offered McKinney to progress and advance the system as their finances and needs changed – we currently support 3 different generations on in car Digital Video recorders with one platform. It was a further shock to see the city throw away the recent and past investment ($415,000) in our technology, and then spend another $277,589.60 to replace an already working solution. Now McKinney owns 2 incompatible systems that have 4 years of evidence that will not be able to be managed by any new system.
Garrett told TSB via phone, “It was so shocking when I found out about them (the police department) switching out our equipment (Panasonic). I’m close with Chris Chiancone and he didn’t have any input on this decision.”
TSB asked Chiancone for comments concerning the usual protocol of purchasing technology equipment. He did not respond to those questions.
Meanwhile, in the police department, things were moving forward.
“The next thing I know, Smith said, there’s this WatchGuard video product showing up on our lap and I’m being told (by Williams) to take it, put it in a car and test it out.”
Smith said Williams had WatchGuard in the police vehicles during his tenure with Celina and he was comfortable with it. Smith took an older car and installed the WatchGuard equipment, all of which then had to be configured.To do so, Smith said he modeled the WatchGuard set-up after the City of Plano, which also uses the WatchGuard equipment in their police vehicles. Smith said he felt that Plano would have already run into some of the same problems that he might encounter setting up and configuring the new video equipment. When the configuration was finished, Smith said, “We were very proud of it – we thought it a great robust system.”
Smith said he notified the Chief that he had a vehicle ready to test.
“Then we went into a meeting with Joe Williams and he just threw a temper tantrum. I swear to God, I thought he was a two year old pounding his feet and his hands. He threw a temper tantrum and threw the WatchGuard (sales) rep out of the building and said, ‘Don’t come back. He threw the guy out and told us, ‘This is not what I want,’ ” Smith said.
Smith said that Williams had not given him any direction prior to the installation of the newly purchased WatchGuard equipment, other than giving him the box that held the and telling him to install it.
“Since I was an officer for so many years here, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what the officers want,” Smith said.
Normally, Smith said, there would be a design meeting where discussion about expectations and parameters are set, but that did not take place. Following the tantrum, Smith said that Williams said he wanted the product configuration to be done “just like we had it in Celina.” Smith said that he wasn’t clear what that entailed as he had never worked in Celina. He also said that he was surprised at that request because Celina was a much smaller city than McKinney. In 2012, Celina’s population was 6,587 and McKinney’s was 143,233. Smith said Celina had a much smaller call volume and, in his opinion, it made no sense to model the configuration after a much smaller city.
“We had approximately 55 cars in just patrol at that time, compared to 6 in Celina,” Smith said.
In an interview with TSB, Williams said, “I want to make my experience clear. When I was in Frisco (prior to becoming chief in Celina) I managed 100 officers and I took care of the video systems in their (police) cars.”
Williams said he did speak with Plano police to gather information about WatchGuard, but did not elaborate on that conversation.
According to Smith, Williams didn’t like the “category” model that Smith and his team had put together. They had programmed possible categories, such as traffic, burglary, drugs, etc., for each police stop made. A category, along with an incident or report number, Smith said, makes it easier to find information about a particular call.
“In the end, the set up for the video equipment became the choice of ‘Save, Yes, or No’. I told the Chief that that made no sense,” Smith said. “Everyone’s (in the police department) afraid of this man, so no one will speak up. They are so afraid that they will loose their job. If my name is attached to something, I’m either gonna do it right, or you can fire me in the process of doing it right. I was at the point of if you are gonna fire me, fire me.”
The software is now set up so that the officer can input only “Save, Yes, or Save, No”. There isn’t a written policy as to when an officer should check yes or no to save, it’s left up to the officer’s discretion. This, according to Smith leads to another set of problems.
The DVR, which is pulled into the police department goes into the server. If an officer selects “no,” the server automatically saves the information for the 90 days required by racial profiling law. Now, Smith said, citizens or officers have to know which car and which officer made the stop, and what time of day the stop was made.
“If you don’t have an incident number or a report number, it is very difficult to find information about a stop,” Smith said. “The department can’t set up purge categories because no categories exist. Everything is saved and when the server gets to 80-85 percent, it automatically deletes the oldest information.”
“WatchGuard is a very feature rich produce. Any engineer will tell you that a product is only as good as their weakest link. Their weakest link is their cables, which have created nightmares for us. It (WatchGuard) doesn’t have the durability of the Panasonic — it has more features. Because it’s HD, it does provide clearer pictures, but the problem is that this system takes 10 times the storage that the old system did.”
The question that remains is, why did Williams, in an apparent vacuum, decide to discard the functioning Panasonic equipment, in which the City of McKinney had invested nearly half a million dollars in, and then purchase the WatchGuard video equipment?
Williams told TSB, “There was some functionality that the police department needed, specifically the D.A.’s office, with regard to being able to cut certain portions out that the Judge would deem inadmissible in court. He (the judge) said that the Panasonic system would not allow them to do that.”
Garrett disputes this allegation. “Panasonic has backwards compatibility with our older products. There is absolutely no record of any problems with any of the Panasonic equipment. I went back and searched through our records. The D.A.’s office said they had some problems with the proprietary video because no one had shown them how to do that (edit it). After we had already lost the deal, my engineer went in and showed them (Collin County) how to do it for free.”
Smith added, “There’s this claim that we’ve lost cases because of Panasonic. The only issue that I know of when I sat in on meetings with the District Attorney is called redacting. For whatever reason, we as a police department would turn over evidence (to the D.A.’s office) in a Panasonic format — a proprietary format, which is how they encode their video. You can’t use Windows Media Player or anything like that to open it and edit it. That’s to protect the integrity of the file so it can’t be tampered with. This is evidence. The video gets to the D.A.’s office and the judge may decide why they need to redact something. That’s the responsibility of the D.A.’s office, not the police department. They (the D’A's office) probably should have contacted Panasonic to discuss.”
Smith said that he also found problems with the WatchGuard cables. “What we found is that the problem is that the two cameras are connected by HDMI cables which break very easily at the connector. Officers didn’t notice that the video equipment was malfunctioning. There was no error message and the equipment appeared to be recording correctly.”
Smith said on many occasions when an officer actually surveyed the video that was supposedly recording during a stop, the video was blank, compromising evidence. When cables were replaced, the equipment worked properly.
The WatchGuard cameras are mounted on the windshield glass within the police vehicles. Hot weather during the summer months makes this difficult. Equipment falls as the glue that attaches the cameras to the windshield often melts.
Smith said, “Plano didn’t have their systems glued into the windshield, they mounted the equipment with heavy brackets that were developed for the sun visor and were screwed into a piece of metal. The Panasonic systems were the same way. We never had a problem with their cables. When we are comparing products, we have a very feature rich product (Watch Guard) that has issues with durability, and then we have a very durable product (Panasonic) that may not have the same features. In a first responders environment, you want durability,” Smith said.
Smith told TSB that the WatchGuard told him they were working to improve the cables, realizing that they had a defective piece of equipment.
Smith went on to say that several emails notifying the Chief of the various issues with the WatchGuard video equipment illicited no response. Smith said he was told that he was no longer allowed to communicate directly with the Chief. All communications had to flow through Deputy Chief Scott Brewer or Assistant Chief Randy Rowland.
Coming on Monday: Aaron Smith encounters more issues with McKinney Police Department’s radar systems.