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Cops lose radio communication inside WNY mall

Posted at 11:30 PM, Feb 11, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-12 07:26:09-05

During an emergency, back in September, police radios lost service while they were making an arrest inside the Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls.

"They attempted to communicate out they were unable to," Town of Niagara Police Chief Jim Suitor said.

Suitor says officers had to move to find service, with a suspect in handcuffs, arrested and accused of impersonating police.

"There was a no coverage issue there," Suitor said.

Niagara County Sheriff Jim Voutour says this has been a problem since June when a new $10 million taxpayer funded, countywide radio system went online.

The cheriff says it was being engineered at the same time the mall was being expanded, with no way to test the signal strength inside.

"In parts of the mall it does work," Voutour said. "In parts of the mall it doesn't."

Last year, police responded to just over 730 calls at the mall, down from nearly 900 in 2014. But the sheriff says they have no idea how many times those radios actually worked.

"Of course if a radio doesn't work in a certain spot that could be an issue," Voutour said.

Voutour said the department does not keep track of where or when radios don't work.

But the mall but this building is a high priority for police. Chief Suitor estimates 20-30,000 people pass through the massive mall during peak times.

"We've identified it as a soft target," Suitor said.

Bernie Tolbert is Buffalo's former FBI Special Agent in Charge.

Without talking specifics, Tolbert said "it's a recipe for disaster" when communication doesn't work.

"The foundation for the job you're doing is not there. There in lies the problem. You have to be able to communicate," Tolbert said.

7 Eyewitness News has obtained exclusive body camera video from the arrest. In it, tones are heard when radios lose service.

In the case of the man accused of impersonating police, officers were in front of the Kay Jewelers Outlet, in the older part of the mall, when they lost service.

Suitor says police officers have trained to deal with this problem. He says they would use their cell phones as a last resort if their radios lost service.

"In a crisis situation we'd like everything to be perfect and they're not," Suitor said.

Police say the radio signal is sometimes blocked by the nearby landfill. Weather, they say, is a problem too.  Still the Sheriff says this is the best system money could buy.

"You're not going to go anywhere in New York State or this country and find a system that works 100 percent of the places.  It's that simple," Voutour said. "We want to get the best coverage we can get...we would like to make it better."

The ultimate fix would be a transmission tower build near the mall. That could cost up to a million dollars more. 

"As far as public safety is concerned, it's not a want, it's a need," because safety is at risk, Suitor said. "Is it a hurdle? Absolutely it is. Are we going to overcome it? Absolutely we will."

7 Eyewitness News reached out to a spokesperson for the outlet mall. She wouldn't speak on camera, but said the mall security team has no problem with communication.

Police there has not been any specific threat made against the mall. They hope to have this radio problem fixed later this year.