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April 26, 2012
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Tim Dees Police Tech & Gear
with Tim Dees

Cellular jammers can affect two-way radios too

They’re not just annoying... they’re a serious threat to police officer safety

Cell phones have revolutionized personal communications in many ways. Most of us can no longer imagine being out of touch with our acquaintances, and the intermittent times this happens during commutes and time spent deep in the recesses of buildings is a cause of major annoyance.

It’s also given rise to a new brand of boorish behavior, where people carry on loud, one-sided conversations wherever the mood hits them, disregarding the aggravation it causes everyone within earshot. A recent news item reveals a high-tech approach to solving this problem, but one that portends potential disaster for public safety officers and others.

In early March 2012, a customer of Philadelphia’s SEPTA public transit system had all he could take of being disturbed by his fellow passengers’ cell phone calls. He purchased an inexpensive jammer from an Internet merchant and started activating it when he was riding the bus. Poof, no more cell phone calls. Another passenger saw him using the device, but instead of ratting him out to the FCC, she called the local NBC television affiliate. They located “Eric” and had him demonstrate the device for them.

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It worked flawlessly.

Eric told the TV reporters that what he was doing wasn’t illegal, but rather in “a gray area” of the law. Sorry, Eric, it’s not gray at all. It’s covered quite explicitly under 47 USC §302A, and the FCC has no sense of humor about it whatsoever.

So What?
Beyond having your cell phone conversations interrupted, why should you care?

You should care because these same jammers can interfere with the operation of your two-way radio, your GPS receiver, and the cellular modem that connects your patrol car’s computer to home base.

These jammers are also more commonplace than you might think. Truckers have been known to buy and use them to confound the GPS transponders their employers put on their trucks, so they can get a little time off the clock — or at least out of the boss’ watchful eye.

Someone intent on ambushing a cop could put one in place to keep their victim from calling for help.

There have also been some instances of interference with aircraft navigation systems attributed to jammers. It’s no secret that the national air traffic control network functions on 1960s technology and is in dire need of an upgrade. Solutions are being evaluated at various airports around the country, including Newark (N.J.) International Airport. Aircraft attempting to use a GPS-based system have had their receivers go dead without warning, probably due to jammers in use by commercial trucks on nearby Interstate highways 75 and 95.

Not New
Jammers have been used by public safety officers, with controversial results. Last year, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) in the San Francisco area shut down cell phone signals at one of their stations to frustrate a planned demonstration there. Demonstrators said they intended to block the tracks and interrupt service on the system in protest of a shooting by the BART Police.

The demonstrators cried “foul,” and the FCC is now asking for public comments on any future shutdowns of service for public safety reasons.

Unless your state has an applicable law governing interference with communications or use of an unlicensed transmitter (jammers are just multiband transmitters), you probably lack the jurisdiction to arrest or charge someone you catch using a jammer.

The FCC does have a web page set up to take complaints,  but if you locate someone with a jammer, it might be worth your while to call them and see if they can do anything to act immediately or authorize you to seize the jamming equipment. 

About the author

Tim Dees is a writer, editor, trainer, and former law enforcement officer. After 15 years as a police officer with the Reno Police Department and elsewhere in Northern Nevada, Tim taught criminal justice as a full-time professor and instructor at colleges in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia, and Oregon.

He was also a regional training coordinator for the Oregon Dept. of Public Safety Standards & Training, providing in-service training to 65 criminal justice agencies in central and eastern Oregon.

Tim has written more than 300 articles for nearly every national law enforcement publication in the United States, and is the author of The Truth About Cops, published by Hyperink Press. In 2005, Tim became the first editor-in-chief for Officer.com, moving to the same position for LawOfficer.com at the beginning of 2008. He now writes on applications of technology in law enforcement from his home in SE Washington state.

Tim holds a bachelor’s degree in biological science from San José State University, a master’s degree in criminal justice from The University of Alabama, and the Certified Protection Professional credential from ASIS International. He serves on the executive board of the Public Safety Writers Association.

Dees can be reached at tim.dees@policeone.com.

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