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Friday, August 10, 2001

Bloomington police mandate 2-person patrol units

Faulty emergency radio transmissions cause change

Pantagraph staff

BLOOMINGTON -- Consistently faulty emergency radio transmissions have forced the Bloomington Police Department to mandate two-person patrol units to ensure the safety level of its officers.

Inaudible, static-laden and failed communications have created situations where officers have been at risk because calls for backup weren't immediately heard by dispatchers and/or other officers, Assistant Police Chief Jeff Sanders said Thursday.

Two or more officers routinely respond to calls of a violent or urgent nature, but placing two officers in each squad car will diminish their reliance on the radios for immediate backup, Sanders said.

"It became obvious there are times when our officers are not in communication," Sanders said. "It's created an officer safety issue with the radios. This (double staffing) will ensure officers will have backup in the vehicle with them.

"We're just going to have to run with it for a while."

Since July 15, Bloomington officers have filed more than 70 radio problem complaints. Sanders thinks that is related to his request that officers be more diligent in filling out problem sheets. Complaints are forwarded to the McLean County 911 Communications Center and E.F. Johnson Radio Systems, the Minnesota-based firm that designed and installed the system.

Double staffing also may create delays for citizens who need to file routine reports, such as theft or vandalism incidents, said Sanders, adding that one or more officers will be assigned each shift to take reports that typically do not require backup.

Bloomington's patrol supervisors also have discretion to ask officers to delay requests for personal time off -- beyond regularly scheduled days and vacation time -- to provide adequate staffing, Sanders said. The double staffing will be enforced mainly on the second and third shifts, which typically have a higher volume of calls for service.

The 3 to 11 p.m. shift is the most heavily staffed and routinely has between eight and 11 officers on the street. Under the new policy, the same number of officers will be on duty, but there will be three to five fewer squad cars on the street.

In May, the Metcom Operations Board paid E.F. Johnson $183,000 to analyze the 800 MHz system, upgrade software and set it and all portable radios back to factory settings. The work also provided a foundation from which E.F. Johnson will recommend long-term fixes to the Metcom board Aug. 17.

Officer confidence in the radio system -- criticized for its reliability and quality since its inception four years ago -- is at an all-time low, said Mike Scott, president of Bloomington's Police Benevolent and Protective Association Unit 21.

There was a systemwide failure lasting 90 minutes two weeks ago and officers' calls to dispatchers or other officers often aren't heard or must be repeated because of static and interference, he said.

"Ever since they've done that (resetting the system) things have gotten worse," said Scott. "I can't tell you that the guys are happy with the changes (in patrol staffing), but they are upset about the whole situation.

"It's just adding to the frustration."

Bloomington police have borrowed a dozen 450 MHz radios from the Normal Police Department, which placed its old radios in storage following the switch to 800 MHz, for backup in case of another systemwide crash. Past system crashes have forced officers to rely upon cell phones and in-car computers to communicate with dispatchers or among themselves.

The communications center is working on a contingency plan for radio failures, but Director Shawn Walker could not be reached for comment Thursday. The number of complaints filed by the Normal Police Department and the McLean County Sheriff's Department were not available, but officials agreed the radios are a serious problem.

"At the present time the portable radios are totally unacceptable," said Normal Police Chief Walt Clark said. "They're horrible."

"We're experiencing radio problems. We have since day 1, but I don't know what to say," added Sheriff Dave Owens. "It's just a frustration for police administrators and I'm sure it's a frustration for the line officers."

Neither Normal nor McLean County has plans to double-team patrols.

Johnson overhauled the system in 1999 after much prompting and complaining by local officials, but most of the shortfalls were later tied to specifications and to financial constraints imposed when the $3 million system was built.