The voice of the police Dispatchers: They deliver emergency calls, routine announcements and the occasional nudge to officers across the city.

January 27, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Van Johnson and John McCall rarely see the people they talk to every day, but they are among the best known employees within the Baltimore Police Department.

Their unique voices, biting wit and calming influence have made them stars of police radio.

As dispatchers, Johnson and McCall are responsible for guiding officers through their daily routines as they pass calls from emergency operators to officers on the street.

Their sayings have become legendary -- not only imitated but absorbed into the daily vernacular of policespeak.

Johnson, 48, might be one of the few people who is asked to stand at parties to recite what otherwise would be a dry radio transmission about a computer search.

"There are no 10-27s, no 10-28s, no 10-29s. Nothing. Nada," Johnson says, spouting a series of codes that correspond to checks for license information. The words have become his oft-copied signature-trademark.

Before the first "nada," officers tended to miss the transmission, and would often request a driver's record when nothing could be provided. Something had to be done to drive the point home.

Call it police shtick.

Officer Gary McDowell said Johnson is pleasant to listen to, adding, "He does it with an air of dignity and humor." Said Maj. Gary Lembach, "When you hear Van on the air, you know things are going to go great."

Then there's McCall, who had to spice up mundane hourly broadcasts that officers were required to wear their seat belts, a rule often overlooked on the street. "All units," McCall began, "please remember to buckle up so you can hear this announcement tomorrow."

The humor might be lost on the public, but the average cop welcomes any break in the grim routine.

"You try to keep it light and you try not to be routine or mundane," said McCall, who worked for 16 years in the scouting department for the Orioles before becoming a dispatcher in 1989. "You don't want to sound robotic, because they are going to tune you out."

Johnson started as a clerk in 1969 and occasionally filled in talking to officers, when calls were handwritten on index cards and sorted manually. He became a full-time dispatcher in 1988 and has been a fixture since.

His voice rarely changes pitch, but he keeps the subject matter interesting, and often funny. He breeds confidence, familiarity and cooperation. Real life is his straight man. And he's always in control.

"When [officers] chase someone down an alley, I can't be chasing them from my seat," he says.

McCall sounds like a fan at a baseball game commenting on the unfolding action. But he speaks like the enemy in pinstripes, delivering quick jabs and observances that credit mundane happenings with cosmic significance.

He has declined overtures from colleagues to return to baseball as the Orioles' next public-address announcer, joking that fans "couldn't understand a New York accent."

On a particularly busy shift this month, McCall was trying to get an officer to respond to a house to check on an elderly woman. But the officer kept ignoring the call. After a 30-minute delay, McCall dispatched it again with, "I hope she's not dead."

The remark got a chuckle, but it had a serious tone. "The officer was procrastinating and I was just honest with the officer," he said. "He was going to other calls that were not needed for a backup, and I had to check the well-being of a woman. The son hadn't heard from his mother in hours."

Johnson once took a frantic call from an undercover officer who shouted for help over the radio: "They're shooting at me." Johnson asked where she was, but the officer, apparently more willing to let bullets fly by than reveal her hiding place, radioed back: "I can't tell you. I'm in a covert position."

Police commanders say it is Johnson and McCall they want to hear over the air when something serious happens. Johnson was at the mike in 1992 when his friend, Officer Ira Weiner, was fatally shot in a West Baltimore rowhouse.

"I could hear the first officer on the scene responding, saying, 'I can see him laying there, I can see his hand. I can't get to him,' " Johnson recalled. "Then all you hear is gunshots in the background. That is a very helpless feeling, knowing that someone is down, someone is hurt. This is the time you have to be strong. You have got to take control."

For all the bizarre calls or incidents, some moments make the job worthwhile. During the bliz- zard of 1996, Johnson got his cousin to help a lost teacher whose car was stuck in a snowdrift.

"I told her that police were very busy, and this is the best I can do. 'A man is going to be walking toward you. Don't be scared. He's my cousin and he's going to help you out.'

"I will always remember that," Johnson said with a satisfied smile. "I didn't know her. I just knew she needed help and I could give it to her."

Johnson's voice is so distinct that once, while buying batteries in a Radio Shack, a woman behind him in line heard him talk to the clerk and said, "I know you. You are in my house all the time."

The woman said her husband had a police scanner. "He gets up every morning and turns you on."

Pub Date: 1/27/98

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