Think Twice Before You Key That Mic

The mere fact that an officer broadcasts that a person of a particular racial background and gender was involved in a crime simultaneously accomplishes two things: It puts one group of potential suspects on cops' radars while effectively eliminating another.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

On October 11, 1969, two San Francisco patrol officers responded to a Presidio Heights neighborhood where moments before Paul Lee Stein, a taxi driver, had been shot in the head and killed. Turning onto West Street, the officers spotted a large white male walking on the north side of the street.

The man's appearance was distinctive enough for the officers to take notice of him; at least one was able to give a reasonably detailed description of the man later.

Any other time, they would have checked the man out. But as their observation of the man had come within seconds of a crime broadcast — a broadcast that'd indicated that the taxi driver's killer had been a black male — they drove past the pedestrian.

However, when an updated crime broadcast was transmitted over police frequencies correcting the suspect's race as "white," the officers quickly doubled back to where they'd seen the man.

But the man was gone.

Had the officers missed out on law enforcement's best chance to catch the infamous Zodiac Killer?

We may never know. But a letter Zodiac himself wrote to the local news media certainly suggests as much: Zodiac gloated that two of San Francisco's finest had driven right past him.

Such can be the unintended consequences of rushed crime broadcasts.

I got to thinking about this while listening to a much more recent crime broadcast, one that followed the shooting death of a police officer. The emotionally deflated tones of personnel on scene left little doubt as to the horror that they were dealing with, and it was painfully apparent that they were focused on getting a crime broadcast out as soon as possible.

However, that initial crime broadcast indicated that the suspect was a white male. Shortly thereafter, an amended broadcast asserted the suspect was a black male. Throughout, one could hear officers and witnesses in the background, and it was readily apparent on tape that the officer initiating the broadcast had confused the color of the suspect's vehicle with that of the suspect.

In the seconds that followed, officers were broadcasting that they had seen a possible suspect vehicle heading in a particular direction — despite it being a different color than that which was used in the crime.

This might seem like a minor thing. But it's not. Consider some of the problems that have arisen incident to crime broadcasts.

The mere fact that an officer broadcasts that a person of a particular racial background and gender was involved in a crime simultaneously accomplishes two things: It puts one group of potential suspects on cops' radars while effectively eliminating another.

And how's this for an unintended consequence? A Los Angeles Sheriff's Department sergeant detained a "suspected car thief" at shotgun point incident to a crime broadcast. The sergeant discharged his shotgun accidentally, killing the detained motorist. It turned out that neither the man nor his vehicle had been involved in any crime.

In the interest of full disclosure, there was nothing wrong with the crime broadcast that precipitated that tragic chain of events. But it does illustrate the perils that people may face when they suffer the misfortune of matching a suspect description.

That's why you should make damn sure that you're putting out information that is as accurate as possible. Sometimes, you may be at the mercy of multiple witnesses whose descriptions conflict with one another. If there's ambiguity about a suspect's race, attire, mode of transportation, then acknowledge as much up front.

Whatever else, between store surveillance systems and police dash cameras, there may be footage available that you can reference. If you're rolling to a call and don't have time to detain someone that you think is up to no good, then angle that camera at them. How many times have you seen someone who later committed a crime for which he obviously wasn't responsible for at the time of your initial observation? This way, you may at least have some image to refer to.

The important thing is to recognize that there are consequences to crime broadcasts and when you key that mic, you will be putting events into action, or — as in the Zodiac example — inaction.

Your fellow officers will be looking for particular individuals that correspond to what you'd communicated to them. And once you begin to look for something in particular, it can be hard to shift gears: It might be hard to not think of pink elephants if you're told not to; I imagine it's even harder if you are told to.

Doubtlessly, there are those instances where a crime broadcast went out a split-second too late to result in a suspect's capture. But I suspect that such incidents are few and far between. More often, I believe that those images that cops pick up on their visual cortex are easily for some time thereafter. How many times have you heard yourself or a partner say, "Didn't I just see...?" after hearing a suspect or vehicle description?

Getting out a crime broadcast out as soon as possible is important. Getting it out accurately is even more important.

Addendum: "McNary": Yours is one of the few comments I've ever trashed (I was going to leave it and reply, but found that you're not even registered). It added nothing, and was reflective of the "know-it-all" attitude that results in these mistakes continually being made.


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