12/02/2006

Cops' use of cell phones: A hindrance or a vital tool?

By Heather Ratcliffe
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Can you hear me now?

Not if you're on duty, say some police leaders who worry that cell phones are distracting officers and maybe even putting their lives in jeopardy.

Many departments across the area have adopted new policies limiting cell phone use during working hours. Some prohibit cops from wearing electronic phone earpieces while in uniform. Others expect an officer to pull to the side of the road while making a call.

"Unless it's a real emergency, it's probably not a good idea for a police officer to be driving around with one hand to the ear while the other one is on the wheel," said St. Louis police Sgt. Sam Dotson.

But not all officials see it that way. Some refuse to blame the technology for what amounts to bad habits and bad supervision. They say the cell phones have made police work more efficient and accessible.

"If your cell phone is interfering with your job, then that's a problem," said Alton police Chief Chris Sullivan. "But it's not the cell phone's problem."

In the city of St. Louis, Chief Joe Mokwa created a policy in June that prohibits officers from wearing earpiece phones while on patrol.

"These devices not only interfere with an officer's ability to hear the (police) radio, they also jeopardize an officer's safety," Dotson said.

Officials said the department expects officers to use their police radio to communicate, with some exceptions. The department issues cell phones to some commanders and members of special units. "Just because you see an officer on the cell phone, it doesn't mean he's violating policy," Dotson cautioned.

St. Louis County Police said they are considering revising their policies to address the issue. They see it as a matter of officer safety.

"What are we not paying attention to in our surroundings when we are talking on the phone?" asked Officer Tracy Panus, a spokeswoman for the department.

She said a new policy might suggest that officers pull to the side of the road to make a call.

Police instructors say officers must be constantly vigilant about their surroundings so they can spot crimes in progress, people who need help or threats to their own safety.

Maryland Heights Officer Jerry Kelly, an instructor at the St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy, said he trains recruits to be alert with their ears as well as their eyes.

"It's difficult to do that when you're talking on the phone," he said.

Kelly said there are several good reasons why an officer may need to use a cell phone on duty. Sometimes an officer can't get a radio signal or might want to call a victim or witness while responding to a call.

Cell phone use among drivers isn't a new safety issue. Some states have banned all drivers from using handheld phones in their cars. They include California, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and the District of Columbia. The same law restricts police in those states from talking on a phone while driving, experts said.

But some departments are embracing the technology.

Alton police issue city-paid cell phones to about half the officers. Chief Sullivan says cell phones can be a vital tool for police.

"Typically, in an emergency, you will have radio traffic tied up with ambulance service, fire and police are trying to communicate at once," Sullivan said. "But an officer can get on a cell phone and call in important information to his supervisor without jamming the radio."

He said officers who abuse cell phone privileges aren't any different than those who might bring a book to read at work.

"You shouldn't be reading or conducting personal business on duty," he said. "If it becomes a problem, that's a supervisory issue." 

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