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Departments : Officer Survival

All Keyed Up

Your portable radio is your most important lifeline to other cops, but only if you use it wisely and well.

May 01, 2004  |  by - Also by this author

Words Matter

Officers should also be careful what they put out over the radio even in quieter times. Agencies retain such transmissions for varying lengths of time, usually as a means of exonerating officers and justifying their actions or inactions.

But courts have ruled police radio transmissions are matters of public record, and cavalier use of the radio can get officers in trouble even when things appear to be "in control."

In one of the most heinous cases of poor radio usage, two Milwaukee Police Department officers joked about having to get "deloused" after returning an incoherent young Asian man to his male "lover." The other man had told them that the Asian adolescent was 19 and drunk and that they were having a lover's quarrel. Cavalier radio conversation later came back to haunt these officers when the Asian "man" turned out to be 14, his "lover" turned out to be Jeffrey Dahmer, and their radio transmissions were played during the infamous cannibal killer's trial. The public was outraged and the officers were fired.

It's also important to realize that the police radio code was long ago cracked by the public and broadcasting a major incident on an open police frequency will attract unwanted attention. A long time ago, the utterance of "187" might have gone unnoticed by an eavesdropping journalist. Not so today.

Consequently, officers should be extremely prudent about the type of information they put out over the radio. For example, victims' names, addresses, and phone numbers should be communicated via a mobile digital terminal whenever possible.

Hit Radio

Good radio communication pays huge dividends. It can earn you the trust of the watch commander who's evaluating whether or not your pursuit is in policy and will leave a favorable impression on your peers.

Los Angeles Sheriff's Department K-9 officer Dep. Steve Wilkinson notes that K-9 handlers responding to containment requests can often handicap the odds of a successful search while listening to the area coordination over the radio.

One of the key factors in establishing a successful containment is coordinating police resources via the radio as quickly as possible. The days of suspects running a block or two and burrowing are gone. Generally speaking, the only suspects that hunker down are your inexperienced criminals, your first timers. Veteranos-your second- and third-strike candidates-are gonna keep running.

And so will the pursuing officers, which puts distance between the officers and their patrol cars and creates that much more of a delay in setting up a containment. Consequently, it is important for a responding officer to take the initiative in setting up a containment as the officers in the foot pursuit will be winded. Ideally, this officer should be the senior cop working the area. Failing that, an officer with an extended ETA should take up the slack by pulling over and using his map in setting up a containment. Once a containment has been effected, ask the aero unit-if available-if there are any weaknesses in your containment.

Portable radios are the closest thing to having a lifeline next to a partner. They allow for the expedient response of assistance, prevent situations from escalating, and allow officers greater freedom from their patrol cars.

But they can offer a false sense of security. Charley Larson, communications section supervisor with the Montana State Patrol, notes that no matter how state of the art the technology may be, his agency's jurisdiction has no shortage of "dead zones," in large part due to the mountains from which the state derives its name.

Finally, a radio is only as good as its operator, and its cavalier use or wear can have serious implications for the officer who wields it. We've all known the officer who wraps the cord up and around his back-thereby availing a suspect a means to throttle him. Perhaps he's on another frequency altogether.

Practice Radio Control

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but until our Mobile Digital Terminals can transmit "live shots" of our predicament, we're stuck with giving our fellow officers a verbal picture of what's up.

By taking a few preventative measures, we can save ourselves and our fellow officers a lot of grief.

The fluid nature of our work means that a seemingly calm situation can escalate rapidly, so much so that we may find ourselves unable to adequately communicate all our most pressing needs when things go south.

Here are a few radio-ready tips to keep in mind:

  • When using the radio, be respectful of others' needs. If you work a particularly busy area, prioritize your information requests and transmissions accordingly.
  • Get used to advising your dispatcher when you're initiating a pedestrian or traffic stop, or otherwise exiting your car for some investigative reason. Advise your exact location, so as to minimize cross-fire situations with responding officers. And make sure that the information being repeated by the dispatcher is what you've communicated.
  • Develop a tactful, but assertive, nature. It can keep situations from escalating, thereby limiting the number of times you require emergent assistance (also, it'll let troops know that you really need help when you do).
  • Take the initiative. If you have visual of the primary officer or car in hot pursuit of some social misfit, call the pursuit for the officer-especially if he's running. Conversely, refrain from offering comments that do not aid in the subject's capture.
  • Make sure you're on the frequency you think you're on.
  • Carry a map of the area you're working in your shirt pocket, particularly if you work on a large agency and are subject to getting shuffled from one beat to the next. In the event of a foot pursuit, a map can come in handy in setting up containments or getting resources to your eventual location. If you still find yourself lost, take a second to catch your breath and your bearings. Look for the most prominent landmark nearest your location and guide personnel in from there.
  • Use plain English when transmitting-particularly on emergent situations-as many neighboring agencies may have different "ten codes"-or none at all.
  • Finally, take some time to review your radio transmissions. It might surprise you. There've been times I thought I was transmitting with the cool, relaxed baritone of Sam "Beef, it's what for dinner" Elliot, only to find myself wondering who the hummingbird on crack was that I found myself listening to.

Dean Scoville is a patrol supervisor for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and a frequent contributor to POLICE.

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