In Sign of Times, City Police Officers Rely on Cell Phones

By ELIZABETH SOLOMONT, Special to the New York Sun

When a Queens woman reported her car stolen earlier this year, the responding officers arrived at her Astoria home and located the vehicle at a local tow lot within minutes. Not by talking to eyewitnesses, or using their police radio to broadcast an all points bulletin - but by using their personal cell phones.

"They found the car within five minutes," Kate Finley, 23, said. "I don't know how long it would have taken otherwise."

In a sign of the times, New York City police officers increasingly use cell phones to conduct police business, often at the behest of their immediate supervisors. But a police department rule that prohibits most officers from using personal cell phones in favor of police radios or pay phones while on duty means individual police officers are often footing the cost of those calls themselves.

The growing reliance on cell phones is, in part, a natural outgrowth of the department's reliance on technology to solve crime, and on the ubiquitous nature of mobile technology. Certainly the efficacy of communication is not

The growing reliance on cell phones is, in part, a natural outgrowth of the department's reliance on technology to solve crime, and on the ubiquitous nature of mobile technology. Certainly the efficacy of communication is not lost on many officers, who remember the notorious breakdown in communication among emergency responders on Sept. 11, 2001.

"My sergeant might say call the precinct. Well, how am I going to call the precinct if I don't have a cell phone?" an Upper West Side patrol officer who, like many officers interviewed, declined to be named because of the department rule against cell phones, said. Fellow officers agree. "You're not supposed to have it, but how practical is it not to have it?" an officer assigned to a post on West 81st Street and Central ParkWest ,who ,like many officers interviewed, declined to be named because of the department rule against cell phones, said.

Police officials readily admit cell phones are an indispensable tool for officers, and in fact they distribute 3,076 mobile devices - including cell phones, Blackberries, and Nextel walkie-talkies - to commanding officers citywide and the majority of the police department's executive staff, a police department spokesman, Inspector Michael Coan, said. The department pays between $36 and $45 monthly per phone, each distributed on a case-by-case basis to those officers whose assignment necessitates mobile communication, he said.

Those without department-issue cell phones are not supposed to carry their personal phones on duty, but may do so "at their commanding officers' discretion," he said.

But, citing mostly tacit approval from their supervisors, many uniformed officers wear phones discreetly tucked into pockets or hidden underneath their uniforms. They that are regulated but do not include cell phones -ticked off their reasons for carrying personal cell phones on duty, not the least of which is they often use their phones to communicate with dispatchers and each other instead of using the police radio or finding an increasingly scarce pay phone. Some also said cell phones free up radio airwaves for high-priority emergencies, or said when they are handling detailed - or private - information, they'd rather speak directly to other officers, rather than broadcast information to anyone tuned in to the police frequency.

"I didn't have a cell phone until I got on the job," an the Upper West Side patrol officer, said. "It's more convenient.. I use it more for business" His partner agreed. "When it's cold and raining, I'm not getting out of this car to use a pay phone," he said.

According to a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Joseph King, the use of mobile technology is normal practice in some law enforcement offices, including special agencies and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But even for uniformed officers in New York, he said, cell phones offer direct access to other officers by way of avoiding the busy radio airwaves. "direct access on a busy frequency." For certain bureaus, such as transit, Dr. King said, cell phones can be more reliable than radio signals. What's more, police radio frequency can be intercepted, he said.

Still, current NYPD guidelines for on duty cell phone use places some officers in conflicting circumstances, leaves some officers in uncomfortable situations, since officers those who use their own cell phones can't ask for reimbursement for calls they weren't supposed to make in the first place. At least one city lawmaker said officers shouldn't have to necessarily pay those bills. "If they are being encouraged to use their personal cell phones in order not to tie up police department wavelengths with non-0emergency matters, then they should be reimbursed," City Council member Peter F. Vallone Jr., chair of the council's public safety committee, said.

In the meantime, officers who declined to be named because of phone-usage rules said they pick up the cost, and use the business expense as a tax write-off. One sergeant in Gramercy Park said 50% of half his cell phone bill don't have an exact amount was police-related. A female officer on patrol with him said using her cell phone for police business has added an extra $40 on to her bill since she started using it for work.

A cell phone helped solve the high profile homicide case against the man who allegedly shot Brooklyn Detectives Patrick Rafferty and Robert Parker in 2004,when Parker called 911 from his cell phone to identify the shooter before he died.

Nevertheless, officials said they don't plan to issue more phones, and remain loyal to the radio system. "Cell phones are never going to replace radios," Mr. Coan said. For everyday use, radios allow instant communication between dispatchers and officer, and radios are better in emergencies, he said. "If I'm in a tight situation, I want that radio. In a second, I have a voice on the other end."

Not everyone in uniform wants a cell phone. One officer assigned to a street near Rockefeller Center observed that who declined to be named cell phones could be dangerous in crime scene situations. "If it rings, it tells them where I am," he said. "I'm supposed to try to arrest the bad guy, not let the bad guy know I'm there unless I want to be announced." Mr. Coan said at least one investigator with a department issued cell phone is typically present at major crime scenes. On smaller calls, officers are encouraged to use pay phones, and have the option of a police PIN number to make free calls if they need to use a telephone.

In the Queens case where officers used their cell phones to track down a missing car, the owner of the car, Ms. Finley, said the responding officer never asked to use her phone, although she said she gladly would have complied. "But everybody - me, my friend, the two officers - had phones there," she said.

Copyright 2006 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
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