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Oakland police radios failed during Obama visit undermining security
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OAKLAND  (AP) — This city's year-old $18 million police radio system failed repeatedly during President Barack Obama's visit to Oakland on Monday and during protests surrounding it.

Many of the 100 police officers assigned to presidential security duty that day were unable at times to communicate through their radios with police dispatchers, and even with each other, during the president's fundraiser at a downtown theater, according to the head of the city's police union.

At one point, officers couldn't reach dispatchers for about 30 minutes, said Barry Donelan, president of the Oakland Police Officers Association. Another time, some officers reported that the radios failed altogether shortly after the president departed and some protesters began blocking downtown streets.

"It doesn't work, that's the bottom line. Our officers have absolutely no confidence with this current radio system," Donelan told the Associated Press on Thursday. "It puts my officers and the citizens they serve in serious jeopardy because of its unreliability."

City officials could not be immediately reached for comment on Thursday. But Sgt. Chris Bolton, chief of staff for Police Chief Howard Jordan, earlier told the San Francisco Chronicle, that he was on duty Monday night and was among those who had trouble contacting fellow officers. "Obviously we want a reliable radio system," he said.

The radio system that began operating in June 2011 was supposed to be a needed upgrade from the previous analog network reputed to have numerous dead zones in some of the most dangerous parts of town.

But the new digital system has been even more troublesome, plagued by breakdowns and dead spots that have left officers' vulnerable to blackouts across Oakland and even in many commercial buildings, including the basement of the downtown police headquarters.

An official report commissioned by the city administrator's office released last week said the new system needs numerous improvements due to "poor reception, unclear audio and speaker problems."

Donelan said the radio problem, which averages about 500 glitches a month, is another setback in a department that has seen a 30 percent reduction in officers since 2010 and a 20 percent spike in violent crime this year.

"Our officers don't know when or where it's going to work a regular basis," Donelan said. "The failure becomes magnified when the president of the United States is here, but how about the on-duty officer is confronted with an armed suspect, needs some backup and his radio doesn't work? ...That puts the lives of everyone connected in jeopardy."

Monday's radio problems were caused by a cooling unit failure on a transmission tower in the Oakland Hills, police and city officials say. It was repaired Tuesday.

Oakland had fast-tracked the new system instead of joining a regional network of 40 agencies in Alameda and neighboring Contra Costa County that could provide a larger and more reliable service.

Bill McCammon, executive director of the East Bay Regional Communications system, said Oakland city officials contacted him after Monday's problems to learn more about the multicounty collaborative.

McCammon said he understands why the city might not want to ditch a radio system that cost millions of dollars, most of it federal grant money.

"We built and designed a system to include (Oakland) and we've been working with them before some of these things happened," said McCammon. "Clearly there's a sense of frustration on many levels with their system. But I believe that we have a much more reliable system with better coverage, and it may be more cost effective than just standing alone."