If you spent $300 on a new cell phone and you couldn't make calls half the time what would you do?
Most people would take it back and demand that the vendor either fix the problem or give them a refund.
Not it seems, the city of Oakland.
Oakland officials purchased an $18 million police radio system that has malfunctioned ever since it went online in June 2011. Police officers have been complaining for some time now that they have found themselves in emergency situations unable to communicate on their radios -- an obvious danger to their own lives and those whom they are sworn to protect. The flawed radio system even made national news when it failed during President Obama's visit to Oakland.
So how come no one is holding the vendors who sold this lemon accountable? What about the city officials and staff who recommended the system in the first place and convinced the City Council to approve the funding?
As it turns out, the police radio fiasco is part of a pattern.
A report released last week by Oakland City Auditor Courtney Ruby found that in addition to the faulty radios that have been making headlines, the city spent $1.87 million on technology for the police department that either never worked at all, was rarely used or not used to full capacity.
There was $1.2 million spent on a camera system for patrol cars that was supposed to record interactions between police officers and citizens. It didn't work like OPD
An $81,866 system called E-Citation was supposed to automate officer citations and help track racial profiling data. E-Citation didn't even work right in the testing phase. The vendor went out of business taking $81,866 in public funds with them. OPD never was able to use it.
The city spent $65,000 on Evalis, a system to help identify at-risk behavior of officers. But OPD didn't have all of the components it needed to make the system work. The original vendor went out of business. The system was never used.
The city spent $487,347 on ShotSpotter, which detects gunfire and alerts dispatchers so they can send officers to the scene. However, OPD didn't fully use the system. There was only one computer dedicated to monitoring the alerts and due to staffing shortages no dispatcher available to station at the computer. (The city has since upgraded ShotSpotter and now pays the company to help monitor alerts.)
At a news conference Wednesday, Jordan challenged several of Ruby's findings. However, he acknowledged that the department had to do a better job. The city has agreed to implement all 22 of the audit recommendations for improving management of OPD's technology systems and City Administrator Deanna Santana has hired a technology staff person assigned to the police department.
Police officials argue that though OPD bought some technology systems for a specific purpose but didn't or weren't able to use them for that -- the money wasn't completely wasted. The knowledge gleaned from the failed Evalis, for instance, helped OPD develop another successful system called I-PAS.
The point is OPD shouldn't be spending public funds on technology without first making sure that 1) the system is suitable for the particular need, and 2) that the purchase includes all of the software, hardware and whatever else is necessary to make it work.
That's just basic common sense.
The audit also made the common sense suggestion that OPD should start using performance bonds to help protect taxpayer money in the event that businesses go out of business. Oakland officials either have really bad luck or they do a very poor job of vetting companies they sign OPD technology contracts with.
City officials counter that a lot of the companies selling new technology are small startups and are reluctant to get a performance bond. That the city must keep options open as not to miss out on any opportunities.
What benefit was derived after these "innovators" went out of business taking tens of thousands in public funds with them?
For some time now, city officials have been telling residents that Oakland can't hire the officers that it needs to fight violent crime because there isn't enough money in the budget.
Ruby's analysis on the heels of the police radio debacle suggests the city could do a far better job managing the public safety resources it has.