What Do Police Use, Citizens Band Radio (CB) or Ham Radio?

Effective communication is crucial for law enforcement agencies to carry out their duties and ensure public safety.

When it comes to the radio systems used by police departments, citizens band (CB) radio and ham radio may come to mind.

However, police departments primarily rely on specialized communication systems designed specifically for their needs.

In this article, we will explore the communication systems used by police departments and shed light on the role of CB and ham radio in their operations.

Introduction to Police Communications

A male police officer holding a radio up close showing his badge
Police need reliable, direct radio for dispatching, backup requests, communication, and mutual aid.

Radios are crucial in police communications, serving as the backbone of real-time voice communication between officers, dispatch centers, and command staff.

They provide:

  • A reliable and efficient means of transmitting critical information.
  • Coordinating responses to incidents.
  • Ensuring the safety and effectiveness of law enforcement operations.

Here are some key roles that radios fulfill in police communications.

  1. Immediate and direct communication: Radios enable instant and direct communication between police officers, allowing them to relay information, request assistance, and coordinate their actions in real time. This immediate and direct mode of communication enhances situational awareness and facilitates swift decision-making.
  2. Dispatch communication: Police radios connect officers in the field to dispatch centers, where trained dispatchers receive emergency calls, gather information, and relay pertinent details to officers. This two-way communication ensures efficient allocation of resources, accurate information dissemination, and proper coordination of responses.
  3. Safety and backup requests: Radios serve as lifelines for officers in potentially dangerous situations. They can quickly request backup or alert others of imminent threats, ensuring officer safety and allowing for swift responses from nearby units.
  4. Tactical communication: During tactical operations, such as hostage situations or high-risk arrests, radios facilitate secure and encrypted communication among specialized units, allowing for coordinated and synchronized actions. Tactical channels and encrypted modes ensure the confidentiality and integrity of sensitive information.
  5. Interagency and mutual aid communication: Radios enable communication and coordination between law enforcement agencies, emergency services, and mutual aid partners during joint operations or multi-agency responses. They facilitate seamless interoperability, ensuring effective collaboration and resource sharing.
  6. Emergency communication: Radios play a critical role during emergencies, allowing officers to quickly communicate vital information, coordinate evacuation efforts, and request additional resources from emergency management agencies or other support services.

Using Dedicated Radio Systems for Police Communications instead of CB and Ham

Police departments generally do not use ham or CB radio as their primary communication systems, as mentioned.

Ham radio is a hobbyist radio service regulated by the FCC, and its use is restricted to licensed amateur radio operators.

While some law enforcement personnel may hold amateur radio licenses and use ham radio for personal purposes, there are other communication methods for police departments.

Similarly, CB radio, which operates on specific frequencies within the 27 MHz bands, is primarily used by individuals for personal and recreational communication.

Instead, police departments typically rely on dedicated radio systems, often operating within designated frequency bands, providing secure and reliable communication channels designed for law enforcement purposes.

Dedicated radio systems have long been utilized for police communications and play a crucial role in law enforcement operations. These systems provide secure and reliable communication channels specifically designed for the needs of police departments.

Here are some key points regarding using dedicated radio systems for police communications.

Secure and Private Communication

Dedicated radio systems ensure secure and private communication channels for law enforcement agencies.

These systems employ encryption and other security measures to prevent unauthorized access and eavesdropping, maintaining the confidentiality of sensitive information.

Reliable and Robust

Police radio systems are built to be highly reliable and robust, enabling officers to communicate effectively in various situations, including emergencies and high-stress environments.

They are designed to minimize interference and offer enhanced coverage, allowing officers to stay connected across a wide geographic area.

Instant and Direct Communication

Radio systems enable instant and direct communication among officers, dispatchers, and command centers.

This real-time communication facilitates swift coordination, response, and decision-making during critical incidents, improving operational efficiency.

Group Communication

Dedicated radio systems support group communication, allowing officers to communicate simultaneously with multiple individuals or teams.

This feature is handy for coordinating efforts between different units or during large-scale events where multiple officers must be informed simultaneously.

Priority Access

Police radio systems often have priority access to the available communication channels, ensuring that law enforcement agencies can communicate even during peak usage periods or network congestion. This priority access helps maintain uninterrupted communication for critical operations.

Compatibility and Interoperability

Police radio systems are designed to be interoperable with other public safety agencies and emergency services, enabling seamless communication and collaboration during joint operations or emergencies requiring interagency cooperation.

Emergency Features

Dedicated police radio systems often incorporate emergency features such as panic buttons or call functions.

These features allow officers to quickly request assistance or alert their colleagues to potentially dangerous situations, enhancing officer safety.

Training and Protocols

Police departments typically train officers on properly using radio systems, including communication protocols and etiquette.

This training ensures effective and efficient communication and helps prevent confusion or misinterpretation of messages.

Examples of Dedicated Radio Systems for Police Communications

Police officer wearing sunglasses and a hat talking into a handheld radio on a tree-lined street
The police generally don’t use ham or CB radio for official communications.

There are several examples of dedicated radio systems commonly used for police communications. Here are a few.

  1. Project 25 (P25): Project 25 is a suite of standards developed for digital radio communications in public safety, including law enforcement. P25 systems provide secure, interoperable, and encrypted communication for police departments. They support features like group communication, emergency alerts, and vendor compatibility.
  2. Terrestrial Trunked Radio (TETRA): TETRA is a digital trunked radio system widely used in Europe for public safety and emergency services, including law enforcement. TETRA provides secure and reliable communication with advanced features such as encryption, group communication, priority access, and status messaging.
  3. Digital Mobile Radio (DMR): DMR is a digital radio standard for professional radio communication, including police departments. DMR systems offer features like private calling, group calling, text messaging, and integrated data applications. They provide secure and efficient communication with improved audio quality.
  4. NXDN: NXDN is a digital narrowband radio system developed for professional use, including law enforcement. NXDN supports conventional and trunked radio systems and offers features like individual and group calls, encryption, status messaging, and interoperability with legacy analog systems.
  5. SmartZone and SmartNet: SmartZone and SmartNet are Motorola’s trunked radio systems widely used by public safety agencies, including police departments. These systems provide advanced features such as dynamic channel allocation, group communication, secure encryption, and network-wide interoperability.

CB Radio and Ham Radio and Its Limitations for Police Use

CB and ham radios have limitations that make them less suitable for police use as primary communication systems. Here’s an overview of their limitations.

Limited Range and Coverage

CB radio operates on specific frequencies within the 27 MHz bands, generally resulting in a shorter communication range than dedicated police radio systems.

While capable of longer-range communication, ham radio may not provide coverage across the entire jurisdiction or have the infrastructure necessary for seamless coverage.

Regulatory Restrictions

CB and ham radios operate under different regulatory frameworks.

CB radio is open to the public, requiring no license but is subject to certain power limitations and channel usage rules.

On the other hand, ham radio requires operators to obtain an amateur radio license and adhere to specific regulations. Police departments typically require licensed radio operators who can operate within their designated frequencies and channels.

Interference and Channel Congestion

CB and ham radios are prone to interference and channel congestion, especially during peak usage periods or in areas with heavy radio traffic. It can hinder effective communication for police departments during critical situations when clear and immediate communication is crucial.

Lack of Security Features

CB and ham radio systems do not provide built-in encryption or advanced security features commonly found in dedicated police radio systems.

This lack of security measures can compromise the confidentiality of sensitive information transmitted over these channels.

Limited Functionality and Interoperability

CB and ham radio may not offer the full features and functionalities required for law enforcement operations.

Dedicated police radio systems are designed with specific features like priority access, group communication, emergency features, and interoperability with other public safety agencies, ensuring efficient and effective communication during police activities.

Reliability and Infrastructure

Police radio systems are typically backed by robust infrastructure, including repeaters, towers, and network coverage designed for public safety communications.

CB and ham radio infrastructure may not provide the same level of reliability, especially during emergencies when communication infrastructure may be damaged or overloaded.


Police departments rely on dedicated communication systems designed explicitly for their operational needs. These systems offer law enforcement personnel secure, reliable, and efficient communication channels.

While technologies like CB and ham radio have their uses and benefits, they are not typically employed as primary communication methods by police departments due to various limitations.

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