Police Disabling Their Own Voice Recorders

This is not a surprise:

The Los Angeles Police Commission is investigating how half of the recording antennas in the Southeast Division went missing, seemingly as a way to evade new self-monitoring procedures that the Los Angeles Police Department imposed last year.

The antennas, which are mounted onto individual patrol cars, receive recorded audio captured from an officer’s belt-worn transmitter. The transmitter is designed to capture an officer’s voice and transmit the recording to the car itself for storage. The voice recorders are part of a video camera system that is mounted in a front-facing camera on the patrol car. Both elements are activated any time the car’s emergency lights and sirens are turned on, but they can also be activated manually.

According to the Los Angeles Times, an LAPD investigation determined that around half of the 80 patrol cars in one South LA division were missing antennas as of last summer, and an additional 10 antennas were unaccounted for.

Surveillance of power is one of the most important ways to ensure that power does not abuse its status. But, of course, power does not like to be watched.

Posted on April 11, 2014 at 6:41 AM45 Comments


kevin April 11, 2014 6:59 AM

No surprise. It is known around the world that American cops are among the most brutal.

NobodySpecial April 11, 2014 7:48 AM

@kevin – the evidence would suggest that they are not.
A survey of LAPD recordings for example would show that all police spend all their time helping little old ladies across the road and getting cats out of trees.
There were no recorded incidences of any wrongdoing by police

kronos April 11, 2014 8:02 AM

As a general rule, the people who take such incidents seriously and conduct thorough investigations are the same people who rarely have such incidents. I am waiting to see what, if any, measures the LAPD takes regarding the watchers who are working to avoid being watched.

Wayne April 11, 2014 8:04 AM

“No surprise. It is known around the world that American cops are among the most brutal.”

You need to spend some time in countries that really have police brutality, sanctioned by the government.

uh, Mike April 11, 2014 8:24 AM

@kevin, it is known around the world that there are more gunshot deaths in America than in all the other developed countries put together.

Clive Robinson April 11, 2014 8:29 AM

With the reputation various US Police Unions have had in the past, I guess putting in place “disaplinary procedings” for “tampering / destruction of evidence won’t work at the Police level.

Perhaps if the courts threw out automatically all cases irrespective of type where such tampering had occured it might just have the required effect.

However that would encorage criminals to “work the system” which as some on this blog know would be fairly trivial to do…

Nick P April 11, 2014 8:30 AM

@ kevin

What garbage. Most cops in America do what they’re expected to do, which varies by area. The typical problems are them being jerks, ignoring a few basic rights, or pushing bogus infractions onto you. There is a tiny percentage that’s truly dirty, with certain areas having a larger percentage.

If you think it’s brutal over here, I suggest you go piss of a cop during a vacation to Africa, the Middle East, or China. After they’ve beaten you or tossed you in a cell with no amenities, ask them for a lawyer or phone call. Of course, I’m sure cops over there will treat you very gentlemanly and you’ll be out on bail unharmed within 24 hours just like in America. Because they aren’t so “brutal” over there.

anonymous April 11, 2014 8:32 AM

The LAPD just shot up a car full of little old women while hunting down a big fat guy, who ironically was a former police officer who couldn’t handle the corruption anymore. When they finally caught him, the LAPD burned the suspect alive.

Are you seriously defending these people on the grounds that someone, somewhere, is even worse? Your pedantry is binding you to rampant corruption in your own country.

Chris S April 11, 2014 9:15 AM

@Winter — I would suggest that you have to travel far to find evidence of an equivalent to this USA behaviour.

Many of the more remote parts of the world (well – remote relative to the U.S.) have almost no official oversight or journalistic oversight as compared to the U.S.

What you reference is indeed outrageous, but I would be careful about suggesting that “lack of evidence” from the rest of the world constitutes “lack of outrageous behaviour”.

It’s a lot like that niggling reminder in computer security — lack of a log record is hard to accept as proof that something did not happen.

vas pup April 11, 2014 9:32 AM

Very good link on police in Germany:
http://www.dw.de/germany-ill-equipped-to-combat-organized-criminals-at-home/a-17559204 in particular video inside the link where German interrogator told about his interactions with criminal. That is about overregulation versus results (zero brutality by the way).
@Bruce:”Surveillance of power is one of the most important ways to ensure that power does not abuse its status. But, of course, power does not like to be watched.” Yes, Bruce. Any power corrupts, absolute (unchecked/no oversight) power corrupts absolutely, BUT as in any case there is opposite site of the same coin: voice/video recording could work to protect good cop against allegations of wrong doing, brutality, profiling, racism and so on.
As usually, technology is neutral, application is not.

PJ April 11, 2014 9:47 AM

Hence the need for transparency and accountability which are required if we are to learn from the mistakes of the past.

For those curious about the various shootings mentioned in some of the comments:

FBI shooting of unarmed man (Chechen immigrant Ibragim Todashev):

LAPD shooting of two unarmed women (Emma Hernandez, 71 and her daughter, 47-year-old Margie Carranza) who were mistaken for Christopher Dorner

Former police officer Christopher Dorner body burned:

Paul April 11, 2014 10:20 AM

This is hardly an isolated case. Various American police departments have been aggressively targeting citizens who videotape them in the course of arrests.

So far as police brutality and corruption goes – In my experience American police are very aggressive compared to other western nations. There’s very often an us-vs-them mentality. This isn’t surprising given the culture. The US has a higher percentage of its population in prison than any other nation. Including such shining stars of human rights as Pakistan, Russia, China, Cuba, Burma, Iran and Iraq (pre or post Saddam). It also has triple the homicide rate of the next-worst western nation, and more firearms per capita than any western nation.

It’s also true that between the NSA and the various governmental powers enabled by the Patriot act, the US is now de-facto a police state. Citizens are spied on without warrant, and can be stopped on the street, arrested without warrant, held in secret, tortured into confession, tried by secret courts on secret evidence they don’t have access to, and held incommunicado indefinitely even if found innocent. It’s happened. None of this is actually legal under the constitution, but as the government is doing it, nobody is getting punished, so the constitution is irrelevant.

All of this is pretty damn scary. HOWEVER – that doesn’t make the US a worse place to be oppose the government than Russia, China, Cuba, Burma, Iran or Iraq. Journalists don’t get randomly shot, Pussy Riot wouldn’t get imprisoned. There is certainly police corruption, brutality and abuse of their already too-wide powers. However American police are mostly professional, mostly honest, mostly trying to do a difficult job under difficult conditions. Even NSA is responsive (grudgingly) to the various laws that oversee it, even as it aggressively works around them.

Whats actually interesting (and positive) is the degree of effort that’s been put into finding legal cover for all these operations. The government has essentially been hacking the law by redefining words like “collect” and “torture” to enable them to do “legally” what they have actually always done. The Vietnam era CIA didn’t bother redefining torture (or murder), it was expected to do these things, and it did. Hoover’s FBI needed no legal cover for illegal wiretaps on political activists, it just put them in. This means there’s a generational change in what’s considered acceptable, and the government has been trying to square an unsquare-able circle. In the last ten years, civil liberties in the US have been moving in the wrong direction. However in the long term, I believe they’re moving in the right direction, and will continue to do so.

Bob S. April 11, 2014 10:45 AM

How times have changed.

When cameras first appeared in police cars departments were ebullient because now all the bad stuff the Indians did would be on camera. Then, of course, it turned out a good deal of the bad stuff police do was also getting recorded. Officers were getting fired, disciplined and arrested for their conduct. Infact, a lot of them.

Is it any surprise they don’t want recorders on, now?

I say too bad. If you can’t work in the light of day, go somewhere else.

With that said, this also shows that there is no value in a two way surveillance state:

“We watch them, they watch us.”

That’s because when the government cheats nothing happens (like in this case) and when a targeted citizens cheats they go to prison for a long time.

Celos April 11, 2014 10:47 AM

Indeed not a surprise.

This needs to be made a felony that removes these bullies from wielding any kind of authority over other permanently. Also, if the recording is missing, the burden of proof of legal behavior needs to land squarely on the officer.

Any other approach is bound to fail, because the ones doing the disabling know what they are doing is criminal or questionable and they are removing the evidence. Officers that are not in this for the possibility to harass, injure and kill citizens should have no objections to that policy. After all, if they behaved as they are expected to, the recording makes it very easy for them to counter any false claims from citizens.

anonymouse April 11, 2014 10:53 AM

“I’m afraid of people with guns. So lets create another group of people with guns, to protect us from the people guns. Because the problem is people with guns. Wait, what?”

“Okay, wait, I can fix this. Add lots of paperwork and bureaucracy to the mix.”

Not making an ant-gun control argument here, just observing the inherent contradiction of our setup. Law enforcement entities become a kind of superpredator, that inevitably attract their former criminal adversaries to their ranks. If you’re a sociopath with half a brain, why not join the team with union protection, benefits and a pension?

The power to police is also the power to oppress, ultimately it’s all just regulation of human “misbehavior”, however that is defined in the applicable country/tax jurisdiction. We like to pretend we can get the policing without the oppression, “we’ll MAKE them be nice,” but such a stance is simply ahistorical. Add a facade of a heavily captured and managed representative democracy, and suddenly everyone forgets who’s really in control and calling the shots. Everyone buys into the kayfabe, and woe unto you if you speak up during the performance and spoil the mood.

We’re not going to make them be nice. Ultimately, they’re only doing exactly what they were created for, WE are the ones that didn’t understand what we were creating.

Doug D April 11, 2014 10:53 AM

Do not use a monitoring system that treats the absence of information as the absence of incidents.

CallMeLateForSupper April 11, 2014 10:59 AM

I think the final paragraph of the article is interesting. A Boston cop commenting on the proposed installation of GPS on police cars is quoted:

“No one likes it. Who wants to be followed all over the place?”

From the mouths of babes and beat cops. Are you listening, NSA? That’s a law enforcement officer opining on persistant surveillance.

But then that same officer got hinky:
“If I take my cruiser, and I meet [a reluctant witness] to talk, eventually they can follow me and say, ‘Why were you in a back dark street for 45 minutes?’ It’s going to open up a can of worms that can’t be closed.”

Can of worms? You simply say, “I was meeting with a reluctant witness.”

Skeptical April 11, 2014 11:32 AM

Surveillance of power is one of the most important ways to ensure that power does not abuse its status. But, of course, power does not like to be watched.

I agree with the general point, but that also seems a touch on the unnecessarily sinister side as an explanation for the tampering. People don’t like to be recorded at work, especially if the job is frequently subject to litigation, often adversarial, and can involve quick judgment calls in a context of stress and danger.

Interference with these devices seems to be a problem in one part of LAPD, but it’s worth noting:

  • LAPD itself investigated the issue, and took remedial measures;
  • the antennas extend the range of the audio recording, but disabling the antennas does not disable the video recording or audio recordings closer to the vehicle;
  • the problem appears to be with a particular unit within LAPD, not the department as a whole.

I am very much in favor of monitoring like this, incidentally, though I think a large part of it being successful is building trust that it won’t be misused and that tampering with it will bring a lot of unwanted attention.

@anonymous: The LAPD just shot up a car full of little old women while hunting down a big fat guy, who ironically was a former police officer who couldn’t handle the corruption anymore. When they finally caught him, the LAPD burned the suspect alive.

We all make mistakes, but the level of false color you gave really elevates your comment to deception.

Do a little reading about Christopher Dorner, and that mistaken shooting as well.

On the subject of electronic surveillance, a related law enforcement story today:


George O. April 11, 2014 12:09 PM

As O’Brien passed the telescreen a thought seemed to strike him. He stopped, turned aside, and pressed a switch on the wall. There was a sharp snap. The voice had stopped.

Julia uttered a tiny sound, a sort of squeak of surprise. Even in the midst of his panic, Winston was too much taken aback to be able to hold his tongue.

“You can turn it off!” he said.

“Yes,” said O’Brien, “we can turn it off. We have that privilege.”

Michael Dundas April 11, 2014 12:16 PM

Well, as Law enforcement always says to civilians “If you are not doing anything wrong, why would you be concerned if you were being watched or recorded”. If they are following the law and not doing anything wrong ….. 😉

vas pup April 11, 2014 12:17 PM

@anonymouse: “If you’re a sociopath with half a brain, why not join the team with union protection, benefits and a pension?:” Not really even in the worst jurisdiction on human rights. First, all applicants are going through general medical and psychiatric /psychological evaluation, hiring unit usually conducts background check in the field (contact is person close contacts of applicant to eliminate sociopath with 1/2 or less brain), then there are usually periodical (scheduled)same type reevaluations after joining force or ad hoc evaluation when potentially harmful/traumatic event took place (officer or partner was shot in a line of duty or officer killed offender/suspect). Don’t forget that under uniform they are same human beings as your, same psychological /personal problems. Those in power do not want to give enforcement power and weapon to the person with unpredictable behavior. But they do not want to have in police force somebody with brain size more than average (when officer could think too much – it is dangerous because behavior is not predictable as well).
@all respected bloggers on brutality:
as best of my knowledge there is something like special Civil Rights Protection Unit within DOJ directly or in FBI (not sure) which is involved into undercover investigations of police brutality in particular. Looks like financing and staffing of this unit required to be increased based on facts you’ve posted. The phone number (hot line)of this unit should be provided (publicized) for general public. That is like IA on Federal level. I’ll suggest to all not with police force read attentively second edition of the book by Dale C Carson “Arrest Proof Yourself”. Really, it is good and useful reading based on personal practice of former fed special agent, police officer in a field and currently criminal defense lawyer.

Simon April 11, 2014 12:32 PM

Hold everything. If this is being investigated to determine how it could have happened, then why does this read “Police Disabling Their Own Voice Recorders?” Why do they need to do an investigation? They should just check with you.

EH April 11, 2014 12:47 PM

Arbitrary comparisons of “US Police” to other countries aside, it would seem to be a fairly simple fix to require police to ensure that their monitoring is working, with officer(s) forfeiting qualified immunity for anything that happens when monitoring is not working.

paul April 11, 2014 1:10 PM

They don’t let a police car leave the station without full tires, working headlights, rearview mirrors, full complement of equipment in the trunk and so forth. So why should they let it leave the station without a full set of recording equipment. And any commander of precinct who has more than one set of officers a week on desk duty because there isn’t a working vehicle available for them gets a career-limiting letter in their file.

Market forces.

Arclight April 11, 2014 2:25 PM

This is fundamentally an accountability problem. Well, it’s actually a solution to an accountability problem that is creating new accountability problems. But in any case, police departments have strong mechanisms to enforce accountability for things they care about. In this case, it could be a pretty simple policy change:

Create a policy that treats check-out of the voice recorder and all needed accessories similar to the check-out and check-in process for other important assets.

Weapons are checked in and out, signed for and witnessed by the armorer or a supervisor. And there is possible career-ending hell to pay for lost or unaccounted for weapons.

If the Sheriff or Police Chief wished to do so, they could enforce a similar level of accountability for the recording systems via their chain of command.


DB April 11, 2014 3:05 PM

“If they wanted to”… yes, if they wanted to, there are lots of obvious solutions. However, they don’t want to. They want to remain unaccountable to the public. So they’re fighting it. Either passive aggressively, or actively.

DB April 11, 2014 3:25 PM

“At this point, the probability is close to one that every target has had its private keys extracted by multiple intelligence agencies”

vas pup April 11, 2014 3:26 PM

@unimportant. Thank you for the link provided. By the way (Clive and Winter will object if I am wrong) in Europe private owner of the theater, club, restaurant, etc. have a right to block cell phone transmission (in/out) by EM jammer altogether, but with requirement to post clear notification of jamming for the consumers/customers on the front door/entrance, meaning whoever you are: uniformed, undercover, CI, SO or just regular civilian that applies uniformly for all. The power of jammer is provided such feature inside particular building/facility only, and not affecting any adjacent space. Interesting is such jammers are ILLEGAL in the US for private usage in the same fashion as described above. Conclusion: time and again, we see clear imbalance of power and not with advantage on civilian side.

SJ April 11, 2014 3:54 PM

@kevin, @EH,

one of the problems with discussing “US Police behavior” is that some 22,000 different departments exist. They range in size from NYPD/LAPD to the Sheriff’s Department in middle-of-nowhere, Montana.

There may be a culture that has common elements across most of these agencies, but the pressures in place (and attitudes that don’t get smacked down by Senior Officers) vary.

I suspect they vary widely.

But I don’t have carefully-gathered data. I have news stories (which skew towards shocking and exceptional events) and tales told by friends.

(I’ve known a couple of people who were LEOs. I don’t think any of them has ever drawn their service pistol on a perp, though they’ve all had funny stories about chases. And a few stories about un-cooperative suspects. One guy told a story of the time when he was afraid the crowd nearby would turn from disgruntled onlookers into a hostile mob while he tried to maintain control of a uncooperative detainee.

What have I learned? A cop’s work often involves dealing with unhappy people. People who may not be sober, or in a mood to listen, or be nursing a grudge against The System. It’s a hard, and often thankless job.

I do wish there was less of an “us-vs.-them” mentality inside the Department.)

Generally, cameras should be a good idea. But when the “us-vs.-them” attitude includes a distrust of any outside interpretation of the camera, then the Department has a bigger problem than cameras disappearing.

And it’s hard to fix that kind of problem, especially if it is paired with a distrust/hatred of Police by a large section of the populace.

paul April 11, 2014 3:57 PM


So what we’re both saying, I think, is that it’s the LAPD brass, despite whatever protestations they may be making, who don’t want the recording system to operate. And line officers are taking their cues from the boss.

EH April 11, 2014 4:34 PM

SJ: one of the problems with discussing “US Police behavior” is that some 22,000 different departments

Right, which is why I didn’t participate in that offtopic digression. Thanks for sharing.

Figureitout April 11, 2014 4:51 PM

Well, haven’t seen the other latest story involving LA police posted yet. Another terrible split-second reaction by cops leads to a stabbing victim being shot, another shot and killed, and the actual perpetrator was “subdued” w/o killing him. All around terrible story and yet another “shoot first, ask questions later” incident involving trigger-happy incompetent police:


John Campbell April 12, 2014 11:33 AM

“It doesn’t matter how well-crafted a system is to eliminate errors; Regardless of any and all checks and balances in place, all systems will fail because, somewhere, there is meat in the loop.”

cryptoengineer April 13, 2014 12:32 AM

Clearly, if an officer who has been issued a recording device makes a claim
about what a suspect said when there is no voice recording available, that
claim should be regarded with extreme suspicion, and probably thrown out as inadmissible.

The office wouldn’t go on patrol knowing his gun wasn’t working. He shouldn’t
do so with a busted recorder, either.


CashierWithAShotgun April 13, 2014 7:05 AM


Whats actually interesting (and positive) is the degree of effort that’s been put into finding legal cover for all these operations. The government has essentially been hacking the law by redefining words like “collect” and “torture” to enable them to do “legally” what they have actually always done.

Positive? Hardly. Rather an attempt to look good while doing bad.


I think the final paragraph of the article is interesting. A Boston cop commenting on the proposed installation of GPS on police cars is quoted:
“No one likes it. Who wants to be followed all over the place?”

It is indeed interesting. Yet, for some time ago the police had been employing gps bugs to track people. Without any warrant. So it sounds like “it’s ok to target but not to be targeted”. Who would ever doubt, eh.

vas pup April 14, 2014 11:05 AM

@Franklin. The link you provided gives examples when nobody sane will defend those particular officers and their particular actions violating the Law.
But I’ll not attack police force as a whole based on those bad examples. They perform important and required (until all around become angels) service for society risking their life in the line of duty, but I agree with the idea that there is huge space for improvement of their performance by improvement of: process of selection, training, evaluation, hiring /firing, oversight, responsibility. As with any gov: problem is not gov by itself, but disfunctional gov. Same applies to any LEA including police.

Roger April 16, 2014 7:19 AM

Interesting how everyone jumps straight onto the bandwagon of “cops are doing this deliberately.” Based on the facts in the article, there is little if any evidence of this.

  1. Breaking the antenna does not prevent voice recording; it just reduces the maximum range to the order of a hundred yards, depending on terrain. The audio doesn’t cut off sharply at this limit, it gradually gets worse.
  2. Despite this, only one IA investigation has noticed poor audio.
  3. Each car is fitted with two of these antennas, one for each officer. In some cases, only one antenna was missing — allowing the conversation to be heard from the other. This is hardly consistent with deliberate sabotage.
  4. Patrol car equipment gets damaged (or vandalised) all the time. Even if the damage is obvious it usually takes a while to get it repaired. In the case of these antennas, it appears to have been difficult to notice unless specifically checked. Such a check has now been added to the routine.
  5. The 72 antennas found broken in Southeast division were the first comprehensive check in 4 years. Or 1 antenna broken per 4.4 car-years of patrolling.

While some or perhaps even many of these may have been deliberate, Occam suggests that in most cases, the most probable cause is normal wear and tear.

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