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Law exempts officers from hands-free cell phone law
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People occasionally comment that police officers are using cell phones (without a hands-free device) while patrolling neighborhoods or traveling to calls for service. I have seen comments in various blogs and newspaper letters suggesting that the police are, in effect, operating by a double standard by "illegally" using cell phones when everyone else is subject to receiving a citation for doing the same thing.

To clarify, the law specifically exempts on-duty emergency personnel, to include firefighters, police and emergency medical responders, from the hands-free requirement. I believe legislators had a rationale for this apparent anomaly in the law. Specifically, any hazards incurred by using cell phones without a hands-free device are substantially outweighed by the need for emergency personnel to be able to have two-way communications as quickly and efficiently as possible. One might speculate that onboard computers and two-way radios accomplish the same thing, but they do not. Two-way radios are slow, and using computers to text information is even slower under the best of circumstances. Hands-free devices like those with wires or Bluetooth wireless are less reliable and more cumbersome than using a cell phone like a regular handset. They are therefore not practical for use by emergency personnel who must act quickly and receive the clearest sound possible.

Like all people, police officers can and do make mistakes, so as not to suggest that there will never be a collision featuring an emergency service worker using a non-hands-free cell phone. But police, fire and medical personnel are professional drivers, and they are extremely adept at multi-tasking while driving. It is not uncommon for a police officer, for example, to drive rapidly to an emergency situation and while doing so, he is watching traffic, listening to multiple radios simultaneously, monitoring the computer and, perhaps, even talking to the dispatchers or other officers on the cell phone. Their ability to do so many things at once is quite impressive.

The police, in particular, have developed increasing reliance on cell phones owing to the fact that they are more secure from "eavesdropping" by criminals. Criminals with police frequency scanners are common, so to overcome this problem, police officers use cell phones to communicate about tactics and other sensitive matters. There has also been a trend for officers to speak directly to victims and witnesses via cell phones when responding to complicated calls or in other instances when direct communications are important.

By policy, officers are not allowed to engage in personal phone calls while driving, as it violates the intent of the hands-free law. If the phone calls are made while on duty and are business-related, not only is it legal, but it is encouraged as a measure to increase our efficiency and effectiveness.

Motorists also are exempted from the hands-free law if the need arises to make an emergency call to a law enforcement agency, the fire department, a medical provider or other emergency services agency. And while it may seem obvious, passengers may use cell phones at anytime without running afoul of the law. We regret that some people are left with the impression that the police and other emergency services workers "flaunt" the law when using cell phones without hands-free devices.