The Wildly Popular Police Scanner Goes Silent for Many

The report came over the Indianapolis police radio on a recent morning: two aggressive pit bulls, off leashes in sight, were roaming, a caller complained. Then came a report of a driver, possibly armed, on his way to Indianapolis, reportedly with murderous thoughts.

Police were later dispatched to investigate reports of overdoses, suicides and domestic violence.

All the while, hundreds of Indianapolis residents were listening.

Once available to a relatively small number of emergency radio enthusiasts who invested in hardware and developed technical expertise, emergency dispatch channels have garnered a huge audience in recent years as websites and apps have made setting up as easy as turning on the TV.

“I just like to listen because I want to know what’s going on,” said Bobbi Sue Hester, an Indianapolis resident who has listened to the police radio at night for 20 years. “I guess I’m a curious person, you know?”

Mrs. Hester may soon lose access to her evening entertainment. Indianapolis, where the police channel is among the most listened to in the country, is one of several cities considering limiting access to real-time communications between dispatchers and emergency medical workers by encrypting those conversations. Encryption encodes a radio signal in a way that makes it accessible only to authorized users.

Denver, san francisco, San Diego County, Baltimore, Chicago, new York and Sioux Falls are among the jurisdictions that have already encrypted radio signals to some extent. Minneapolis, whose police department is facing a lot of pressure to be more transparent and accountable, plans to adopt encryption next year.

Law enforcement officials say they have long seen a benefit in allowing a small number of civilians — breaking news journalists among them — to listen in on their communications. But as the number of listeners has soared in a nation where true-crime shows and reality TV are wildly popular, the risks of allowing unlimited access — sometimes including names, addresses and phone numbers — have public safety officials worried.

“The way it’s completely open and uncensored right now creates some risk to public safety and it can also compromise people’s personal information and that of victims,” ​​said Chief Brian O’Hara of the Minneapolis police, who was updating their radio stations to adopt encryption next year.

Two recent incidents, Chief O’Hara said, made the case for encryption. In one case, a search for a homicide suspect was tracked and broadcast on social media in real time, which Chief O’Hara said may have risked exposing the suspect. In another, a report of a kidnapped student went viral, sparking panic among students and parents for days, even though it was unfounded.

Press Freedom Groups and other organizations that advocate for government transparency have expressed alarm at the trend toward encryption. Greg Nojame, director of the Security and Surveillance Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said police departments must find ways to mitigate privacy concerns without completely cutting off access to those radio channels.

“There is a public benefit to getting immediate information about emergencies and I think we should be hesitant to adopt measures that would reduce that,” Mr Nojaim said. “If there’s an active shooter in a neighborhood near mine, I want to know.”

Americans have long listened to emergency communication channels. A few decades ago, tuning required buying a radio, fitting it with a crystal, and learning to tune it to the desired frequency.

That all changed in 2012 after the launch of Broadcastify, a company that collected thousands of emergency and aviation radio broadcasts and made them available on a constellation of websites and apps. Broadcastify and the platforms that rely on its feeds have free, ad-supported and premium versions that are ad-free and provide access to archives.

Broadcastify’s founder, Lindsay Blanton, said his interest in police radios began in the 1980s after watching his grandmother spend hours glued to the radio in her Charlottesville, Va., home, transfixed by the calls of the police and firemen.

“In American culture, it’s very important for people in small towns to have scanners to keep track of what’s going on in their community,” he said. Older women are among Broadcastify’s most devoted listeners, Mr. Blanton said.

At any given time, there are tens of thousands of people listening to emergency radio calls on Broadcastify’s website and the commercial apps that rely on its feeds. During crises, such as the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the 2017 mass shooting at a Las Vegas concert, audiences grow exponentially, Mr. Blatton said.

Adam Scott Wand, a professor of public policy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said he sees value in allowing journalists to monitor police radios to cover the news. But he said he is troubled by how many people are now routinely eavesdropping as police respond to calls about domestic violence, sexual assault, suicide attempts and the pursuit of suspects.

“Let’s face it, we live in a time where true crime shows and podcasts are quite popular and there are a lot of true crime enthusiasts who enjoy listening to live police shows,” he said. “But we have to remember that it’s not just the voyeurs who are listening, there’s the potential that the shooter they’re looking for is listening.”

Some cities and counties that have restricted scanner access have taken steps to inform the public.

When Las Vegas encrypted its police channel in 2018, created a system to keep access to some journalists. After facing backlash over its encryption plan, Chicago agreed to continue providing its feed to Broadcastify, but 30 minutes late. The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department has begun providing a diary of emergency calls, which excludes exact addresses and names.

In the Indianapolis area, which has a large and dedicated community of emergency radio listeners, the topic of encryption sparked a heated debate this year. The city had an unusually large number of homicides in 2021 and 2022, focusing additional attention on crime. Police behavior has also drawn particular attention in the city this year as police officers they fired guns in humans at least 18 incidents.

Mike Hubbs, director of the Hamilton County 911 Center in central Indiana, which adopted encryption over the summer, said dispatchers across the state have come to view large audiences listening to their work as an added stress in a high-stakes profession. cables.

“Within the law enforcement dispatch community, there is tremendous support for encryption,” said Mr. Hubbs, who previously ran the Indianapolis 911 center from 2014 until last year.

At any given time, more than 800 people are listening to the Indianapolis Police Channel on Broadcastify and the Scanner Radio app.

The Rev. Charles Harrison, a United Methodist pastor, is a regular listener. He leads a group of residents who respond to crime scenes to support victims and try to get to the root causes of violence. Real-time tracking of police operations, Mr. Harrison said, was critical in his efforts.

Recent police shootings have strained trust between residents and officers, he said. The prospect of encryption — shutting down what residents can hear — worries him.

“I think it will increase tension and mistrust,” he said.

For Ms. Hester, the longtime listener from Indianapolis, the encryption felt like a mistake for another reason: The scanner made her appreciate how hard the job was.

“These employees are going through hell,” said Ms. Hester, who falls asleep at night listening to Broadcastify. “If people heard half the things we hear on the scanner, they would appreciate our employees immensely.”

Comments are closed.