I've been listening to police scanners since I was 16. I joined WFTV Channel 9 in Orlando as an intern, and I got hooked to the Uniden receivers that littered the assignment desk. Media access to police scanners has always been an informal, accepted mechanism of information exchange between the two institutions, although it is starting to fray. In New York and Los Angeles, you can listen to the NYPD and the LAPD do just about everything they do, in real time, in the clear.
I find this exciting and interesting, if maybe a bit morbid. I also think that public access to police and fire radio traffic is generally a good thing, a way that citizens can keep tabs on an expanding police state, something that encourages the law enforcement community to act in private as they would if they knew people were listening and watching.
But until recently, this little hobby of mine was not terribly popular or accessible. Scanners are pretty cheap, and only a few major police departments have upgraded to fully encrypted systems. But the rise of an open source media culture, the technology that allows apps to link to the personal radio scanners that use their own Internet connections to tie into a central website (radioference.com), and Twitter have made it a thing.
Without getting into a technical discussion of how police communication systems work, I do think — of course — that the police ought to be able to do certain things without worrying that a criminal might listen to them and get away. Some police departments use encrypted channels for surveillance or SWAT raids; others use them for sensitive details like dignitary or witness protection. Others try to get officers to switch to encrypted channels whenever perimeters are set up to catch a fugitive.
But generally, even the bad guys can listen to a scanner and come away with next to no information that helps them commit crimes. Unless you spend months at a time listening to a certain tour or deployment in a precinct or area, you really won't be able to draw a picture that would allow you to say, well, since these patrol cars are here, we can commit a crime here and get away with it. It happens, but it's still rare for criminals to be caught trying to escape the police using scanners. And trust me — they all know about the scanners. It's less rare for criminals to use transceivers or mobile phones to communicate with each other, but we're not going to ban mobile phones.
And even if you could, the police have all sorts of other ways of filling in the gaps: They use license plate readers, CCTV, and other technologies to quickly figure out who was where when things happened.
Now, as a scanner listener, it behooves you to consider certain things:
(a) the information police put out over common channels, like Be-On-The-Lookouts (or BOLOs) is provisional and incomplete. Tweeting it is irresponsible for this reason.
(b) in emergencies involving the potential loss of life, like evacuation situations, it probably is better to let the police figure out how to tell people what to do.
(c) what you hear on a scanner is often an incomplete picture of what's actually happening. The LAPD has ways of communicating with officers through computers and mobile terminals; a lot of routine calls aren't dispatched on radio channels. So you draw conclusions about crimes, criminals, and situations at your own risk.
(d) The Boston Police Department Tweeted this out: "WARNING: Do Not Compromise Officer Safety by Broadcasting Tactical Positions of Homes Being Searched."
That should be obvious.
(e) back when I was working for a local news outfit, we never — NEVER — used information from the scanner on the air without a second source, either official or an eyewitness. I still think that's the accepted practice in local TV newsrooms.
Because authorities have the power to force police agencies to encrypt their channels, and because few will take the time to think about the equities the public and the media have in preserving access to them, I worry that this information commons, as it were, will be regulated too quickly because of the irresponsible actions of a few.
I would rather the Twitter community decide to self-adhere to a few simply rules. Don't Tweet out info from tactical channels — that'd be one. And if people abuse that, shame them, and don't retweet them. If we don't self-police, the police will, because they can, simply upgrade their communications systems.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- How our botched understanding of 'science' ruins everything
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- The science of sex: 4 harsh truths about dating and mating
- Mike Huckabee's head-scratching advice to Christian voters
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- How Scotland's independence movement lost the vote and still won everything
- The American middle class is no longer safe from poverty — and that might be a good thing
- Obama knows he can't really 'defeat' ISIS. Americans need to wake up to that reality, too.
Subscribe to the Week