Some say they’re being forced to pay for rented radios officers call a necessity

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Shavonne Potts
Salisbury Post
As a surveillance officer with the N.C. Division of Community Corrections, Mike Oney might arrest a dozen people in one night who have violated their probation.
He does it at the risk of his own life, but he says the state won’t pay for the “vital equipment” he needs in a pinch.
Instead, he and other probation officers must take $15 a month from their own pockets to rent used radios for that margin of safety.
Three years ago, Oney and other probation officers like him had to give up their 800 megahertz radios in exchange for Nextel phones.
What’s the difference?
The radios are tied directly into the 911 communication system used by local law enforcement agencies. Probation officers can talk to telecommunicators and other officers immediately, and they need only press a button to signal “officer in distress.”
The Nextel phones can function as walkie-talkies, with instant communication to someone else on your network. But local law enforcement agencies aren’t on the same network, and probation officers often have to dial a number to reach 911 or another agency.
“Seconds in the street can make the difference between life and death,” Oney wrote in an April 2005 letter to the N.C. Department of Correction Personnel Office.
Oney, who is also senior vice president of the N.C. Police Benevolent Association’s Corrections Branch, has fought the change from the beginning.
He said a Nextel phone can’t possibly compete with the radios for speed.
“They train us that if we have a shooting situation, keep your eye on the target. That way you can touch the mike on the side (of the radio). With the 800 radios we can get someone,” he said.
Another opinion
But Rose Cox, who oversees field operations in Rowan County for the Division of Community Corrections, made the decision to switch to Nextel phones.
Late in 2004, she explains, the Salisbury Police Department was considering buying its own radio system. To stay in touch with the Police Department and Rowan County Sheriff’s Office, the two largest agencies in the county, probation officers would have needed two different radios, Cox said.
So Cox decided to switch to the Nextel phones with the walkie-talkie feature.
After Community Corrections switched to Nextels, Salisbury scrapped its proposed new system.
“I didn’t want to be stuck with nothing,” Cox said. “If anything, maybe I was too proactive.”
Before getting rid of the radios, the office tested the Nextels for a month, in January 2005. Three officers used the Nextels, and “they indicated there was no problem,” Cox said.
But Oney says those three officers were not representative. “People who do not deal with what we deal with in the street don’t know what we are talking about,” he said.
But Cox maintains probation officers can contact 911 quickly enough with the Nextels, though she said the officer would have to tune the Nextel to the right channel.
Unlike the 800 megahertz radios, the Nextel walkie-talkies don’t allow probation officers to talk to fellow probation officers, 911 and other police agencies all at once.
Cox said she had not timed the response to see which is quicker ó an 800 radio or Nextel phone.
Cox said the monthly fee for the 800 radio and Nextel is basically the same. “There wasn’t any notable difference,” she said.
The radios, however, cost about $1,800. The phones are cheaper, Cox said.
Oney also complains about some “dead spots” in the county where the Nextel phones don’t work.
But Cox said no communication system is guaranteed to work everywhere.
“There were some places the radios didn’t work either,” she said. “Our goal is to provide quality supervision and public safety.”
Lost minutes
In the end, state officials said the Division of Community Corrections would pay for radios or phones ó but not both.
Cox has chosen to stick with the Nextel phones, and Oney says he and six other Rowan probation officers continue to fight the policy.
They also offer examples when the Nextel didn’t work or when the radio really helped.
In one complaint letter, Mark Brown, Oney’s partner, wrote about going to a home with other officers and bondsmen to arrest an offender. The man saw Brown and took off.
In his letter, Brown said the Nextel phones “proved to be totally useless.” In the time officers needed to scroll through their Nextel phones to alert other officers, the suspect was able to get into his car and drive away.
In April 2006, probation officers received word of a wanted man hiding at his father’s home. But the father confronted the officers on his front porch ó holding an AK-47 assault rifle.
Thanks to their 800 radios, the officers were able to get police backup to the home quickly and diffuse the situation.
Other local officials, including area police chiefs, have written letters supporting the the request for 800 radios.
“Having contact with communications during routine assignments is crucial in this business. It only takes minutes for any situation to turn tragic,” Robin Foster, a shift supervisor with Rowan County Telecommunications, wrote in one letter.
Occupational hazard?
Oney finally sent a complaint letter to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which sent a compliance officer to study the situation in August 2007.
The compliance officer interviewed and observed employees and reviewed documents.
In February, Paul Sullivan, a supervisor for the federal safety agency, said its investigation determined that arming probation officers just with Nextels created a potential hazard.
But, he added, “There is no OSHA standard addressing this issue and insufficient evidence to support a general duty clause citation.”
Sullivan said he could only recommend the Division of Community Corrections supplement the phones with 800 radios for “all field work where officers may potentially encounter violent offenders.”
He recommended the state agency make 800 radios available at its office on a case-by-case basis and that officers who elect to buy or rent their own be allowed to do so.
As a surveillance officer, Oney says he spends most of his evenings on the streets, looking for people on the run. He estimates he spends about three hours at his office. He has 80 cases of people wanted by the state.
And communication between him and other officers is paramount. “I’d rather give up my gun than my radio. With a gun, it won’t help you,” he said.
“… If we don’t get help and if a criminal does know that, we might be forced to use our weapon to shoot someone to save our lives.”
Contact Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253 or