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All Keyed Up

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.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

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.

Technical Difficulties

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.

Emote Control

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.[PAGEBREAK]

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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