By Hal Collier, Retired LAPD
There’s a message that terrifies both cops and [dispatchers, AKA Radio Telephone Operators] RTO’s. Sometimes a cop will get in his police car and sit on the microphone. That keys the mic and whatever conversation the officers are having is being broadcast to both the RTO and all officers on that frequency—including the supervisors. These conversations could range from the R-rated description laced with profanity of the officer’s date with the captain’s secretary, or to a physical description of that women on your last call. The granddaddy of all open microphones messages is your negative opinion of your supervisor who is driving away in front of you.
I remember one incident when two officers had an open mic. They were on Sunset Boulevard and vividly describing the prostitutes as they drove by. Myself and half the division raced to find them. Funny, the supervisors had all disappeared. In today’s politically correct world the officers would have received a two-month suspension. With today’s radio scanners it would have been breaking news on CNN with racial overtones.
The RTO’s also have incidents where they leave the radio open and make comments about what an asshole that officer is. Probably true but not a career builder. Either way, an open microphone is a disaster for both parties. If the officer makes a comment that results in misconduct and a complaint is made, the RTO will be a witness. Other officers might also be listed as witnesses but some of us have selective hearing!
On the other side, sometimes the RTO will have the microphone open waiting for the frequency to clear. Her conversation with the dispatcher next to her might not be what you want the whole division to hear. Now days everything is recorded. It’s a 2-edged sword!
I know what a difficult job RTO’s have. They have to deal with a mostly male, often a chauvinistic audience and often under extreme stress. I also know that they frequently send us out on a dangerous call and anxiously await the outcome. After the call, an officer will put himself out of service at the station. That leaves the RTO to wonder, “What the hell happened?” It’s like watching a really good suspenseful movie and missing the ending when the phone rings.
In a large city like L.A. you had to be careful what you said or typed to the RTO. I responded to a welfare check which turned out to be a murder/suicide with a wife and two very young children. I needed the fire department to cut open the metal frame door. When I requested a fire engine and ambulance the RTO asked what I had. Is that standard procedure? I know that the news media monitors radio frequencies so I responded, “read the comments of the call and imagine the worst.” The RTO acknowledged and sent me the required fire personnel. I know she wanted to know what was going on. That’s got to be a hard part of the job.
Dispatchers also handle officer emergencies and are left wondering is the officer safe? Did I do everything right or did I screw up? After the first two episodes of my Dispatchers Ramblings, I received a comment from a former partner who told me of working one night when an officer put out a help call, “Officer Needs Help, My Partner Has Been Shot.” The officer kept screaming, “I need help and an ambulance!” The RTO was crying but remained professional and directed the necessary resources to the incident.
Bet you never saw that on the TV cop shows!
RTO’s and cops? Are we the same? No, but we have a bond that only we understand. We often laugh together but we cry separately. We care about each other but don’t always show it and that’s a shame.