Chicago Project Shield's Depressing Post Mortem

Newly released federal audit finds mismanagement at every level

4 min read

Chicago Project Shield's Depressing Post Mortem

A couple of years ago, I blogged about a homeland security project called "Project Shield." It was supposed to provide Chicago's Cook County with a state-of-the-art broadband capability to stream live video from dozens of fixed and mobile video surveillance cameras to first responder command posts, some of which were to be mobile, throughout the 128 municipalities within Cook County in case of a terrorist attack or other emergency.

The project was started in 2003 in response to the 911 attacks and was slated to be completed in 2008 at a cost of $31 million paid for by grants from the Urban Areas Security Initiative that were funneled through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). However, after numerous delays and cost overruns, the project was finally canceled last summer at a cost of $45 million after a Cook County internal review found it an "ill conceived, poorly designed and badly executed" program, according to a Chicago Tribune story from last summer. The Tribune story noted that the review found that the $65 000 surveillance cameras mounted into 138 police cars not only didn't work, but blocked the cars' air bags, creating a safety hazard for police officers. The County was also found to be paying a company $190 000 a month to maintain project equipment that apparently didn't work in most cases.

The debacle caused Illinois Representative Mike Quigley and Senator Mark Kirk to request the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to conduct an audit of the program. The OIG report (pdf), which was completed last December, was finally released a couple of days ago. The findings were depressingly familiar.

According to the OIG audit:

"Cook County did not ensure that the concept of the project was adequately tested before awarding an initial $12.8 million contract and subsequent contracts for approximately $23 million for the project."

Nor did the project take into account some well-known environmental characteristics of Chicago, in particular the way it can get very cold in winter and very hot in summer. Electronic equipment used in that kind of outdoor environment is going to be highly stressed, but the audit noted that:

"... during the first encounter with seasonal temperature changes, the hardware did not perform within the required parameters. The temperature fluctuations caused equipment failures that were not predictable, resulting in delays as the problems had to be investigated and resolved."

In addition, the fixed surveillance equipment was "... not always effectively located," such as being pointed towards "... police parking lots, streets, and intersections with questionable homeland security benefits. Fixed cameras were also installed in police station lobbies, which sometimes duplicated existing capabilities."

The software required also proved to be an issue:

"The county learned during the implementation phase that the software on the Project Shield wireless computers was not compatible with municipalities’ central dispatch systems. This resulted in some police officers being unable to access critical databases from their vehicles for such items as criminal records, warrants, license plates, and vehicle registrations."

When the OIG asked why there was such poor project planning, Cook County officials said that, "... the project was initiated at a time when funds were not available to conduct planning. Funds were targeted to projects ready for implementation." The OIG report disputes this assertion as absurd.

By the way, the project spent $12,496,924 in its first year, with apparently none of it being spent on doing any planning on how it was to be spent. I guess that reduces the cost of your management overhead.

As I mentioned above, all 128 municipalities that make up Cook County were supposed to receive surveillance equipment. Well, after almost seven years, the OIG found that:

  • 32 never had equipment,
  • 9 left the program after participating in the project, and
  • 87 have Project Shield equipment, of which 71 have vehicle video systems.

When the OIG visited 15 municipalities that had received Project Shield equipment, nearly 70 percent of them complained about the lack of training in how to use it as well as the equipment's performance capability. Some 40 percent also said they were "... unable to or unsure how to transmit video from the vehicle to the command center."

The OIG reported (in a bit of fine understatement) that:

"Cook County did not always comply with procurement, property, and record requirements. We found missing records, improper procurement practices, unallowable costs, and unaccountable inventory items. We were unable to reconcile invoices with the contracts and modifications, and we could not verify that all incurred costs were reasonable, allowable, and allocable."

For example, the final phase of the contract

"... had only one change order, which extended the contract 6 months without additional costs. However, this contract increased from $10.9 million to approximately $23 million, and the contract period was extended over 2 years."

There's more, but I don't want any U.S. taxpayer reading this to blow a heart valve from anger and disgust..

The OIG says the "weaknesses" in the implementation of Project Shield:

"... can be attributed to Cook County’s inadequate management of the project, as well as the ineffective monitoring by FEMA and the State of Illinois."

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the OIG report basically recommends that everyone needs to do a better job of monitoring next time, to which everyone said they would.

Hopefully, the calls by Representative Quigley and Senator Kirk for the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate the mess will be heeded. The FBI was supposedly looking into the project in 2009 when things were already off the rails, but nothing seems to have come of it.

And while they're at it, the FBI may also want to take a look at how $11 700 of Homeland Security Grant Program money came to be used to purchase 13 sno-cones machines in Michigan. Well, at least they apparently work.

The Conversation (0)