Some of the more senior veterans of our profession may remember the days (and nights) of being tethered to the patrol car. Trainees were often saddled with the responsibility of monitoring the radio during their training officers' windshield conferences. And local residents would occasionally find their nocturnal slumber interrupted by the staccato crackle of a police car radio cranked up so loud that an officer outside his patrol car could copy any emergent traffic.
The advent of portable police radios severed the umbilical cord that tied a cop to his or her car. Portable police radios have since assisted officers with timely broadcasts of suspect information, expedited requests for fire and rescue, and saved lives.
However, handheld radios, while much better for patrol operations than car-mounted communication systems, do have their limitations.
The explosive growth of the wireless communications industry quickly rendered the first generation of 400-megahertz police radios virtually obsolete, as competition with cell phones for air-time on lower-end frequencies found emergency services agencies gravitating to higher, less-congested frequencies. Unfortunately, radio waves on higher frequencies do not travel the distances that low-frequency transmitters do, and therefore don't always work in many big structures or throughout entire patrol districts. There is a solution to this problem, additional radio towers, but that's cost prohibitive for many municipalities.
And you can't just throw money at the problem and expect instant results.
Despite switching to a $43 million digital radio system in 1998, Honolulu police officers found themselves dealing with "garbled transmissions." Technicians called the episodes "malfunctions" which were apparently corrected after the primary system was re-booted. But such malfunctions can have serious implications for officers.
Honolulu is not an isolated case, either.
In Atlanta, a new police radio network failed to pick up an officer's call for help just moments before a rifle-wielding suspect wounded her and killed her partner.
Two Kansas City, Mo., police officers said their radios failed to work when each was shot during a foot chase. One of the wounded officers had to run in circles just to find a spot where the radio would work so he could call for help.
Malicious individuals can also disrupt police communications. Rajib Mitra, a former graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, was convicted on two counts of interfering with emergency communications. Mitra's ingenuity included the piggybacking of pornographic sound snippets onto the ends of police transmissions.
Mitra is not the only "genius" who has applied his technical know-how to hijacking, eavesdropping, or jamming cop radios.
Aaron Howard Goldberg, known to Twin Cities cops as "the hacker," wreaked havoc over the police frequencies of a number of police agencies over an 18-month period before being arrested. At the time of Goldberg's arrest, Burnsville (Minn.) Police Capt. Dan Johnson noted that the licensed amateur radio operator would override officer-to-officer or officer-to-dispatch operations, especially during high-intensity situations such as when officers were responding to calls involving crimes of violence.
Fortunately, neither of these criminals' actions caused the loss of any officers' lives, but the threat is very real.
The moral for all officers is to make sure that they have backup communications equipment. In other words, carry your cell phone at all times while on patrol.
But technical glitches and gremlins aside, the biggest liability to the use of portable radios can be operator error. Whether wrestling his steering wheel from the serpentine snare of a radio coil, or telling some flustered dispatcher to sit her "ass on the curb" when he thought he was holding the P.A. instead of the radio, more than one cop has rued the day he keyed his mic.
Back when the car radio was the only "go-to" means of communication, many officers would consider requesting assistance regarding an "officer-involved" fight in anticipation that they would soon be in one. In one example, an officer was confronting a suspect under the influence of PCP.
Such initiative had the advantage of making sure that the officer's requests went out clearly, succinctly, and-perhaps most importantly-calmly.
Today, an officer is more apt to wait to request backup-and legitimately so. But once the bad stuff hits the fan, he or she is more apt to sound panicked when making the request.
The impatient officer who speaks too soon after keying the microphone may find that the important information he conveys over the radio doesn't transmit. And just as a blind man's other senses can compensate for the loss of the one, whatever does get transmitted can carry inordinate weight upon the listener. This can give the would-be rescuer an adrenaline-rush that can, for example, result in over-driving, thereby jeopardizing everyone from the citizenry to the officer he's trying to help.
Such emoting-while undesirable-is understandable. But what proves particularly irksome to Ithaca (N.Y.) Police Department Lt. John Curatolo is when an officer gets the attention of personnel by grabbing a mic and in a loud, rushed speech announces that "I'll be code 33!" Sounds like he's indeed, "out to lunch."
Such cavalier radio play breeds the potential for a "boy cries wolf" scenario.
Just as officers should be cognizant of their tone over the radio, so should they concern themselves with their choice of words. A sergeant of one law enforcement agency, frustrated that a female suspect would not stop her vehicle despite being boxed in a parking lot by radio cars, requested a unit over the radio to "take her out."
While the sergeant meant for a patrol car to ram her vehicle, one officer thought he meant "shoot"-and did so. Fortunately, that officer's aim was on par with his discretion.
In another frightening example of poor radio control, a sheriff's deputy described the flight of one of his escaped prisoners in words that were easily misunderstood. "She just shot through the bushes!" he reported over the radio, thereby creating concerns for responding officers that the suspect was now armed and firing.