Jeff Cain's Radio LAPD: Police as Content Providers in the Digital Age

By Cole, Simon A. | Art Journal, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview
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Jeff Cain's Radio LAPD: Police as Content Providers in the Digital Age


Cole, Simon A., Art Journal


I am delighted to have the opportunity to comment on Jeff Cain's project because it highlights an area of particular interest to me: the interface between technology and policing. Although most people don't think of technology as a significant aspect of policing, criminologists have long noted the technological mediation of police work. Citing Egon Bittner, Peter Manning defines "the core technology of the police" as "situated decision making with the potential for application of violence."'

The communications technologies highlighted by Radio LAPD: 70 Years of Public Work are particularly important for police. Police have consistently been early-if not always adept-adopters of new communications technologies: the telegraph in 1877, the teletype in 1923, the one-way radio in 1928, the two-way radio in 1934, and, more recendy centralized call collection, computer-assisted dispatching, and, as Cain explores, digital radio. The police radio, in particular, has been regarded by criminologists as an important tool in enabling at once greater centralized control and geographic dispersal of personnel by the police bureaucracy, and greater public accountability (the theme of Cain's work) and responsiveness.2 The Los Angeles Police Department is, of course, particularly salient in this regard since it has historically been undermanned and in part for this reason has long been known for its "pathbreaking substitutions of technological capital for patrol manpower"; Mike Davis has called the result "a new epistemology of policing, where technologized surveillance and response supplanted the traditional patrolman's intimate 'folk' knowledge of specific communities." In this sense the radio patrol car marked "the beginning of dispersed mechanized policing."3

More recently, as digital information technology has come to the fore, criminologists have begun to see the police as information workers. As Manning puts it, "Policing is a service occupation whose central 'input' and basis for action is information."4 Richard V Ericson and Kevin D. Haggerty argue that instead of "community policing," we should be talking about "communications policing":

The police officer produces and distributes technologically mediated and bureaucratically formatted communications for other risk institutions, and at the same time taps into the already-processed knowledge of these other institutions to help fulfill the risk mandates of his or her own institution.5

Ethnographic studies of police work find technology, including the police radio, to be a central factor. Manning refers to

the pull and paradox of the radio: When the radio is on, officers orient themselves to its sounds and ignore smells, sounds, events, and sights around them. They cut themselves off from the immediate environment. In summer, when the weather is hot and car air conditioning is on, little outside the car can be heard, nothing can be smelled, and the radio fills the air.6

Manning's innovative semiotic analysis of police communications (which include citizen 911 calls and intraorganizational police radio communications) gives a flavor of the rich data source these communications comprise. It is worth quoting him at length:

Technology gives the message a source, provides a channel, potentially a dominant channel, a means for producing feedback and ambiguity, and a mechanical form. . . . [Police] organizations view technology as a cause of message production, a source of control over work, and a symbol of formal authority and supervision and indirecdy of citizen control. . . . As the message moves from one subsystem to the next, the aim changes from defining, organizing, filtering, classifying, and judging the credibility of the call and the caller to ordering the message as a pohce message governed by subcultural principles to an occasion for individual independent entrepreneurial action and the performance of variable physical, clerical, and interpersonal tasks.

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