This report was published by the Chicago Tribune on Janury 10, 2012.

By Hal Dardick, Chicago Tribune reporter

Cook County wasted millions of dollars on an ultimately unworkable countywide security system during a seven-year span when the Strogers led county government, according to a new federal report.

From 2003 to 2009, the federal government reimbursed the county for about $45 million in costs paid out through Project Shield, which was supposed to share video, audio and text among the county and 128 suburban emergency agencies to improve response to disasters and terrorist attacks.

But the equipment worked so poorly, if at all, that new County Board President Toni Preckwinkle pulled the plug on Project Shield last summer.

“Millions of tax dollars may have been wasted on equipment that does not perform as intended,” according to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security inspector general report released Monday.

The report states that current county officials said “it appears highly unlikely that the installed equipment could be used effectively in an emergency situation.” The county now is trying to salvage and reuse what it can to improve countywide security.

Homeland Security’s inspector general audited the program during the first six months of last year, after Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Chicago, sought an investigation. When the report was released Monday, the two politicians called for a criminal probe.

Quigley, a former county commissioner, had long been critical of Project Shield, but he said Monday he was unable to get the federal government to look into it until he was elected to Congress. He praised Preckwinkle for turning off the federal spigot, but he remained critical of the administration of former Board President Todd Stroger, who replaced his ailing father, John, on the 2006 ballot.

“This project was a big waste,” Quigley said. “Any government waste is horrific, but this is especially troubling because we’re less safe, and there’s alternative costs here. How many cops could you have hired for $45 million? Or FBI agents? Or equipment at the airport? Or additional screeners? All lost opportunities here.”

Homeland Security’s inspector general directed part of the blame at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its Illinois counterpart, saying they “did not adequately ensure that the state of Illinois effectively monitored Cook County’s expenditures.”

Equipment was installed in only 87 municipalities, and only 71 had mobile vehicle video systems, the report stated. Many of them did not work, it added

Preckwinkle’s administration last summer determined that in addition to not working, the $65,000 mobile cameras blocked air bags in police vehicles.

Suburbs that had stationary video cameras sometimes pointed them at parking lots and lobbies of police stations, streets or intersections because they weren’t able to transmit the signal from more distant locations, the report stated.

As a result of compatibility issues, some police officers were unable to access criminal records, arrest warrants, license plates or vehicle registrations, it added.

“The equipment failed during extreme hot and cold temperatures, was not always targeted at the most critical infrastructure and at times prevented first responders from accessing databases need to perform their jobs,” the report stated.

Todd Stroger defended his oversight of the program, saying initial problems were caused by the first contractor, which the county jettisoned. Later obstacles, caused by technical complexity and the number of agencies involved, were gradually being overcome, he said.

“I think that the program only doesn’t work if you shelve it and throw it away,” Stroger said. He said he wasn’t worried about any criminal probe, saying, “I don’t care about that either,” because there’s nothing for such an investigation to turn up.

Kirk and Quigley also called for the inspector general to look into whether it was appropriate for Todd Stroger to have had Project Shield equipment in his vehicle.

Preckwinkle does not have that equipment in her vehicle, a county spokeswoman said.