The Invisible Audioscapes of Police Broadcasts

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Police inhabit a territory of their own creation that is generally closed to civilians.
Rick Prelinger

Issue #48, March 2000


Even more than so-called criminals, police move among us as strangers. Police inhabit a territory of their own creation that is generally closed to civilians. This territory may share the same physical space in which we live and work, and quite often imposes itself on or invades our everyday landscape. But it is a world apart with a self-contained, self-referential, and secretive language all its own. The territory that police inhabit isn't only defined by the space they navigate and occupy; it is also marked and bounded by the ways they communicate and the messages they exchange with one another. Most of us may live our entire lives without ever getting an insider's view of police culture and procedure, but it is pretty simple to witness police activity through two-way police radio broadcasts. Doing so offers a privileged glimpse not only into the veiled world of police procedure but also into the background of our own civilian environment. Listening may tell us more than we may want to know about the structures of power and enforcement that bring peace and safety to some of us and chaos and uncertainty to others.

In the compact city of 100 years ago, communications moved by feet, horses, text and wire. Street photos from the turn of the century reveal the development of messaging infrastructure: thick webs of hundreds of telephone and telegraph wires on heavily loaded poles, blocking the view from upstairs windows. Police received their orders at roll calls before their tours of duty began, and later, while on the beat, via street call boxes, which were one-way private telephone networks enabling them to call into their stations on an hourly basis. Flying squads of police were dispatched from central locations to quell perceived threats to public order, such as picket lines and demonstrations. In the limited communications environment at the time, police management simply stationed patrolmen on fixed beats covering small areas, where they were considered most likely to be accessible to citizens with complaints. Though police inhabited an intensely insular culture, they shared one primary reference point with the citizens in whose name they served: the street.

Decentralization and auto-mobility made it essential for police departments to exploit evolving communications technology. They latched onto radio almost as soon as it became a broadcast medium in the early 1920s. In San Francisco, the first police radio announcements occurred in 1929 on a commercial station, KFRC, which interrupted its regular entertainment programming to broadcast urgent police dispatches as needed. Early the next year, a private one-way system was built, permitting cars to receive dispatches. Talking back, however, required use of the old street call box system. Police frequencies resided just above the upper end of the AM radio dial, and listening to police broadcasts quickly became a popular (if socially disdained) indoor sport, as it has remained to this day. During the turbulent 1930s, San Francisco police were frequently called upon to suppress strikes, protect industrial and maritime property, and deal with the Depression-induced crime wave, and police radio station KGPD played a key role in coordinating all of these operations. Thanks to the efforts of radio hobbyists in its ranks, San Francisco police installed two-way FM radios in its cars in 1941, ahead of many other departments. Later, a great wave of innovation spawned by World War II-era military technology helped put thousands of U.S. police departments on the air. (Part of San Francisco's current police radio system dates back to the forties, an anachronism dictated by the hilly topography of the city, which is friendly to the archaic "lowband" radio system like nowhere else.)

how radio broadcasting travels The greatest impetus towards modernizing police communication was the spate of urban warfare that peaked during 1964-68. Joseph Wambaugh's The New Centurions, a 1970 bestseller, recalls how the Los Angeles police radio system crashed during the Watts rebellion of 1965. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders found that most public safety radio systems weren't up to snuff and recommended that portable radios be developed and provided to every officer. Federal R&D funding and procurement grants were provided through the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration to make this possible. In the early 1970s, San Francisco police supplied handheld radios to all patrol officers, building a system that is still in daily operation. The proliferation of walkie-talkies in all sectors of society is a direct consequence of this initiative, which was also assisted by miniaturization technology developed by defense contractors for use in Indochina. There were also developments on other fronts: the first computer terminals (known as MDTs) appeared in police cars in the 1970s, permitting officers to communicate textually and access motor vehicle and criminal history databases without having to go through an operator. Since messages transmitted by MDTs are not readable by casual eavesdroppers, police enjoy the apparent capability to communicate privately. In Los Angeles during the early 1990s, the troubled police department lost credibility when it was revealed that patrol officers were using the MDT system to exchange racially motivated jokes and slurs. Notwithstanding the unpredictable consequences, it is likely that wireless access to e-mail and the Internet, the ability to receive mugshots and to transmit wireless video will soon be common in police vehicles.

The 1980s brought the development of highly sophisticated "trunked" radio systems that used scarce radio channels more efficiently. And currently the department is making the transition to digitally encoded voice transmissions. When this transition is complete, public access to police radio activity may be inhibited for a while, but digitally capable receivers are already on the drawing board. Even more dramatically, digitally encrypted audio has been adopted in some cities, rendering the activities of public safety agencies secret from the public. (Federal agencies such as the FBI, Secret Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Energy now routinely encrypt all traffic, so that listeners will hear only bursts of what sounds like static. Cleveland, Salt Lake City and soon Philadelphia police are also doing so.) San Francisco has plans to encrypt ambulance and medical dispatch messages in the interest of medical privacy.

The design and deployment of these complex police radio systems is expensive. Such projects have typically been sold to the public as a means of assuring officer safety, but the real advantages of better communications systems are mobility and tactical flexibility. A radio-equipped patrol car can be free to travel anywhere while still being available for reassignment when needed. Commanders can coordinate human resources and equipment according to existing plans, or even on the fly.

As these trends have accelerated, officers have become increasingly isolated from contact with the communities in which they work. Cops spend a disproportionate amount of time in their cars, driving around on motor patrol. Much of their work is reactive and involves responding to calls for assistance, rather than preemptive activities that might possibly reduce some of the causes of human distress that result in police action.

Currently, SFPD operates a 29-channel radio system, though only 15 channels are in normal use. Four of these are data-only channels, which permit data exchange between dispatchers, central computers and the laptops found in most police cars. San Francisco cops and dispatchers are considerably more loquacious than their counterparts in other cities, and calls for police assistance are quite frequent there. For these reasons the channels are highly congested, a never-ending audioscape that forms and reforms around an endless series of ephemeral and quickly-forgotten incidents.

highway patrol As this article is published in early 2000, the audioscape is undergoing further fragmentation, and the conversation density on police channels is increasing. A new trunked system that offers police as many as 50 additional "virtual" channels is in partial operation, and underwent a real-world test on New Year's Eve, when fears of insurrection and Y2K shutdowns prompted aggressive preemptive action by all police and government agencies. With little fear of channel congestion, the police appeared to feel unconstrained in their conversations, and the night's radio activity offered a deeply detailed look into police procedure and psychology.

Police radio is a constant, never-ending, real-time documentary ("the only radio station that's never off the air"), more revealing than a hundred academic papers on "contested space." Like air traffic control communications, much of it is deadly boring. It is routine administrative traffic full of alphanumeric designators that mean little without a cue sheet, a recitation of mileages, case numbers and criminal histories. But listeners, and I would believe cops themselves as well, live for those moments when fear, uncertainty and breathlessness infects the on-air voices and events seem to spiral out of control. This happens much more rarely than scanner radio manufacturers might claim, and police communications junkies need to nurture their patience. But even the most banal discourse carries an immediacy and a sense of exposure far beyond that which is contained in even the most sensational local TV news.

It takes several weeks of careful listening for the language and codes to make sense. The listener soon comes to realize that radio cop talk fulfills both official and non official functions. Its brevity conserves air time and allows speakers to make condensed statements quickly: "He's 10-35 until 3/15/02" takes much less time to say that "He's on probation and may be searched without consent at any time until March 15, 2002." Its specific nature also removes ambiguity: in San Francisco, 211 means robbery, 212 strong-arm robbery, 213 purse snatch. But cop talk, like military jargon, also fulfills an exclusionary strategy, turning its listeners into 'them' and 'us.' Though the meaning of almost all police expressions is known to regular listeners, police adoption of nonstandard language helps support their self-definition as a kind of super-culture, traversing the landscape inhabited by others without being part of it.

A few codes are especially interesting. 420, which in San Francisco officially means "juvenile disturbance," has found its way into general language as slang for marijuana. 806, meaning "juvenile beyond control," carries disturbing significance: under the California criminal code, police are permitted to intervene in certain family disputes involving a minor if the parents have declared the minor uncontrollable, thus bringing the power of the state into what might otherwise be a strictly familial issue. 916 and 917, "suspicious person" in a vehicle or on foot, are indefinite enough to permit almost any kind of police response. Most interesting of all, San Francisco police add the letter "X" to codes when a female is involved, e.g., 918X — "woman screaming for help." On the police channels, a woman is routinely referred to as "an X," as if she were a female chromosome or an unknown quantity.

Much has been written about conflict between police and peoples of color, and there are many oblique hints on the radio that this conflict is constantly playing out. Mindful that they are being scrutinized, though, officers are careful to avoid any suggestion of racist discourse, at least on the air. But one ongoing theme that emerges as one listens to police is their constant and open conflict with youth. At certain times, a first-time listener might easily conclude that the police's primary function is repressing young people.

Afternoons during the school year offer up a feast of youth-phobic activity on SFPD's radio system. One radio channel covering the entire western and south-central sectors of the city (the Richmond, Taraval and Ingleside police commands) is particularly rich in cops vs. kids discourse. Officers typically patrol the areas around middle and high schools, nearby transit stations and stops, neighborhood shopping areas where students tend to congregate, and San Francisco's ersatz-suburban shopping mall, the Stonestown Galleria. They also ride buses and streetcars carrying students to and from school. Though some officers are assigned to special units like the Gang Task Force, most are on ordinary patrol. Judged simply by radio traffic volume, the degree of surveillance is intense. There is tight coordination between school administrators, security officers and the police, and I have frequently heard reports from officers stationed on patrol posts outside schools, advising that students at their school are beginning to leave.

A high proportion of dispatches between 2 and 7 PM weekdays revolve around reports of youth-related incidents, almost half of which tend to be unfounded, exaggerated or just plain wrong, according to my unscientific observation. Many of these incidents turn out simply to be reports of groups of kids hanging out somewhere peacefully, waiting at bus stops, crossing the street en masse, or pausing in front of a driveway. Other complaints involve fights, vandalism and graffiti. There's an especially strong focus on the elimination of threats to property and trade. I have heard major mobilizations involving three or four police cars, all to apprehend a single graffiti writer loose in a city park. Similarly, any confrontations between young people and storekeepers are met with rapid response. The only exception seems to be for kids caught shoplifting in the Stonestown mall, upscale offenders who are left to cool their heels in the security room until the afternoon rush has ended.

micman Incidents that were once handled by spontaneous, direct physical interaction (often brutal) between cops and youths have morphed into pretexts for group police mobilizations. A report of a group of 420s will often lead to a 10-25 call ("respond as backup"), which can develop into a quiet meeting or a frenzied race to the scene. Most mobilizations are anticlimactic and result in questioning or a call to disperse. Youth activity is random and reactive, involving small groups that form within temporary assemblies of kids, taking the slow way home, reacting to similar opportunities along the route. Police movement often follows a similar pattern, but it is highly coordinated into a paramilitary network of people and tools linked by wireless technology. While youth move through space on foot and by bus, cops race around in their cars. One would think this gives the police an overwhelming advantage, but in fact they seem completely intimidated by the constantly changing configurations of young people around the city.

In mid-evening comes a cluster of 807 ("missing juvenile") reports. Most of these involve children that have not returned home after school, and most seem to be cleared quickly when the subjects are found in their own neighborhoods. By nighttime the dispatchers focus almost exclusively on complaints relating to adults.

Why should people risk the scorn of their friends and listen to police radio broadcasts? First, police tend not to be too accountable to the people who pay their salaries, and scanning provides a window, if not a check, on law enforcement activities. Second, they provide a continuous, eye-opening, real-time narrative about the exercise of force, not half a world away or on the other side of town, but around the corner and down the street. Awareness of how force plays a role in maintaining the present domestic state of peace in the U.S. is essential to conscientious citizenship. Finally, keeping an ear to police activities renders fuzzier the territorial boundaries between cops and civilians, and removes at least some of the mystery surrounding the parallel universe police inhabit.

I am indebted to Sgt. Pitzer, San Francisco Police Department historian, for information on the development of SFPD's radio system. A theoretical context for police territoriality is described in Steve Herbert's excellent book Policing Space: Territoriality and the Los Angeles Police Department (University of Minnesota Press, 1997). He outlines a geography of police power and analyzes how cops define and inscribe their marks on space.

Rick Prelinger has listened to official two-way transmissions on and off for much of his life.

Copyright © 2000 by Rick Prelinger. All rights reserved.

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