Digital Vulnerability

Protecting identities of citizens who call police is essential to the health of any criminal justice system. Efforts like the Federal witness protection program safeguard citizens from retaliation from criminals, but the enormous volume of crimes in the U.S. make it impossible for most citizens to benefit from witness protection. Consequently, millions of citizens call 911 or 411 to report crimes, and police dispatchers assign these calls to beat officers who eventually arrive at the scene to assist. Recent ethnographic research indicates this elementary form of criminal justice contact is exposing citizens in low-income minority neighborhoods to violent retaliation from criminals and gangs. In Arizona, California, and Illinois, ethnographers and investigative journalists have found that gangs monitor police radio communication (freely and easily) to identify and subsequently retaliate against callers to promote a code of silence. In these accounts, the dispatcher or beat officer would reveal the name or address of the caller over the radio, thereby rendering them more vulnerable to retaliation from criminals or gangs listening to the local police frequency.

In this project, we seek to more systematically describe the extent to which police render citizens vulnerable to retaliation. Specifically, we ask: 1) how often do police reveal identifiable information about callers over public radio frequencies? And, 2) does the quantity and quality of these identity disclosures differ in White, Black, and Latino neighborhoods? This project answers these questions through the use of a novel dataset and case-study research design. We systematically recorded and transcribed 120 hours of publicly accessible police radio frequencies in three Chicago police districts each serving racially distinct neighborhoods (White, Black, Latino). The recordings were made at the hours of 7-8pm (a time of high volume of calls) and midnight-1am (a time of low volume of calls). The transcriptions were then coded in N-Vivo and R to create measures including, but not limited to, the total number of calls, whether the call disclosed identifiable information, or the kind of identifiable information disclosed. At the moment, we’ve only conducted the analysis for the Black and Latino police districts. We anticipate completing analysis of the white police district by late February.