They're listening: What cops need to know about criminals on police frequencies

These cheap radios pose an officer safety issue you must be prepared for


A sharp young officer in my state recently noticed a hand-held radio on the seat of a car he had stopped, and it seemed to be monitoring police radio traffic. The driver claimed it was a “scanner” as he handed it over, but the officer suspected otherwise. Hearing his own channel coming from the speaker, the officer pushed the “talk” button on the radio and spoke with his dispatcher — the radio was fully programmed to operate on the PD’s repeater system!

The incident was sent out on a law enforcement email net with the question: “Is this legal?” 

Generally, the answer is yes. With a few exceptions, it is perfectly legal to possess such a transmitter, though illegal to actually transmit (except during a legitimate life or death emergency). After some local agencies had been experiencing unauthorized, profane radio traffic on their frequencies, they discovered a local gang had been using the Baofeng UV5R, the most common user programmable talkie on the market. They sell for about $30 on Ebay or Amazon.

The advent of cheap, high-tech transceivers from China now make it possible for anyone to both receive and transmit on many police frequencies. (Photo/BaoFeng)
The advent of cheap, high-tech transceivers from China now make it possible for anyone to both receive and transmit on many police frequencies. (Photo/BaoFeng)

They’ve Been Listening for Years
For more than a generation, we have lived with the reality of having our radio traffic monitored by anyone with a programmable scanner. The devices are inexpensive and capable of receiving any non-encrypted public safety radio traffic. A few jurisdictions have bans on police radio frequency receivers in vehicles, in an attempt to minimize their use by criminals, but monitoring is otherwise legal. The advent of cheap, high-tech transceivers from China now make it possible for anyone to both receive and transmit on many police frequencies.

The Baofeng and similar radios will program any public safety frequency in the VHF (150-174 MHz) and UHF (450-475MHz) bands. They will not interface with the upper UHF bands in the 700/800MHz frequency ranges or operate on trunked or cellular-based systems. But, the vast majority of US police agencies still operate on radio channels compatible with the little $30 technological wonders.

The programmable portables are sold for use by amateur radio, HAM operators for use on their two-meter and 70-centimeter bands, which are adjacent to the public safety bands. They can be user programmed with up to 128 channels using the keyboard on the face or by computer software and have up to eight watts of transmit power. The units can monitor two channels simultaneously or scan through all the programmed channels. Preppers and Militia-types are buying these radios by the boatloads.

The $30 Chinese HAM radios are not certified by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for public safety use, but an upgraded version (Baofeng BF-F9 V2+ model, $50 on Amazon and Ebay) is part 90 FCC certified for use on public safety frequencies. With top-end Motorola radios costing up to $5,000 each, keeping a few $50 throw-away portables on hand for emergency backup makes a lot of sense. Add a few accessory battery packs which use common AA batteries and the radios are good to go even when a natural disaster knocks out AC power for long periods preventing a recharge of their lithium batteries.

Your Local HAM Radio Club
If you suspect illegal transmissions in your area, contact the FCC immediately. They have specialized gear and technicians to perform direction finding to try to pin down the perpetrators. Another excellent resource — who can probably assist you long before the FCC can respond — is your local amateur radio club. The FCC has volunteer “monitors” among HAM users and they have the technology to help you find the illegal transmitters. HAM radio folks are among the most upstanding people in your community and they will come like gangbusters if you ask for their help.

An Officer Safety Threat
Be alert for small, walkie-talkie radios in the hands of people you wouldn’t expect. Most are probably the harmless, low-powered Family Radio Service (FRS) units available at Walmart, but some may be fully functioning FM transmitters which can both monitor and transmit on your frequencies. Bogus calls, misdirection and harassment are only a few of the problems you could experience. 

We face the potential threat of great civil unrest through at least the end of this election season. These cheap radios pose an officer safety issue you must be prepared for.

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