Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Why Police Agencies Still Can't Communicate In A Crisis

A longstanding problem; an expensive solution

The four separate police agencies involved in the disorganized response to last summer's protests in Ferguson, Mo., couldn't easily talk to each other.

It might seem inconceivable that interagency communication would be a problem in 2015. But nine years after The 9/11 Commission Report recommended better communications between agencies, and decades since federal reports began identifying problems with how first responders co-ordinate, there are still no federal standards in place. While there has been some progress toward a nationwide solution, it's still a long way off. 

A draft summary of a Justice Department report on the law enforcement response to the Ferguson protests, which was leaked first to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, makes brief mention of the apparent communication breakdown among cops in Ferguson. As tweeted by the New York Times's Matt Apuzzo:

“The problem is, you have something like 18,000 agencies all across the country, most of them with fewer then 10 people in the department," says Raymond E. Foster, a retired Los Angeles Police Department lieutenant and author of Police Technology. "They use their own equipment on their own frequency. Some of them even have their own language”—using different ten-codes for communications over police radios. A 2012 Congressional Research Service report says a nationwide solution would need to include such teams as 911 dispatchers and emergency medical technicians, which would put the number of agencies at 65,000 nationwide. 

The solution is twofold: establishing a broadband frequency that those agencies can access, and making sure everyone at those agencies has the equipment to use it. That's not a small or cheap task. The 2012 CRS report puts the estimated cost of the broadband setup "in the tens of billions of dollars," while radios could cost between $500 and $6,000 for each responder at every one of those 65,000 agencies.

There has been progress. In 2012, Congress passed the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, which included $7 billion in funding for FirstNet, the national First Responder Network Authority. The authority would begin the process of establishing a public safety broadband network, which would set up its core in Reston, Va. States will then be required to build their own networks to tap into that core. A new CRS report released in May called FirstNet "an important step toward reaching what has been a national goal since September 11, 2001." Still in planning phases, construction has not yet officially begun, though grants were given to five "early builder" projects. The CRS report warns that, as FirstNet pushes forward, "states may consider the federal presence excessive and cease to cooperate with FirstNet, jeopardizing the purpose of the network."

That wouldn't be unprecedented. Dysfunctional emergency communications among agencies stretch as far back as 1967, when President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement cited the problem of “many separate police communications systems in close proximity” complicating simple interactions among agencies and with civilians. 

The goal is to have FirstNet's network in place and operational by 2022. Foster is skeptical that it or any other program will solve the nation's emergency communication problems. "There’s probably a way to make this work nationwide,” Foster says. “We just haven’t been able to.”

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