The very popular police scanner goes silent for many


The report blared over the Indianapolis police radio one recent morning: Two aggressive pit bulls, with no leashes in sight, were wandering around, a caller complained. Then came an alert about a motorist, possibly armed, on his way to Indianapolis, allegedly with homicidal thoughts.

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

Regardless, hundreds of Indianapolis residents listened.

Emergency dispatch channels, once accessible to a relatively small number of emergency radio enthusiasts who invested in hardware and developed technical expertise, have gained a large audience in recent years as websites and Apps made tuning in to channels as easy as turning on the TV.

“I love listening because I want to know what's going on,” said Bobbi Sue Hester, an Indianapolis resident who has listened to police radio at night for 20 years. “I guess I'm just a busybody, you know?”

Ms. Hester may soon lose access to her nighttime pastime. Indianapolis, where the police channel is among the most listened to in the country, is one of several cities that are considering restricting access to real-time communication between dispatchers and emergency medical workers by encrypting those conversations. Encryption scrambles a radio signal so that it is only accessible 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 has faced a lot of pressure to be more transparent and accountable, intends to adopt encryption next year.

Law enforcement officials say they have long seen value in allowing a small number of civilians, including journalists covering breaking news, to listen in on their communications. But as listenership soared in a nation where true crime shows and reality TV are wildly popular, the risks of allowing unrestricted access (sometimes including names, addresses and phone numbers) worried public security officials.

“The way it is completely open and uncensored at this time presents some risk to public safety and may also compromise people's personal information and that of victims,” ​​said Chief Brian O'Hara of the Minneapolis police. , which has been upgrading its radios to adopt encryption next year.

Two recent incidents, Chief O'Hara said, argued for encryption. In one case, the search for a murder suspect was tracked and broadcast on social media in real time, which Chief O'Hara said could have risked tipping off the suspect. In another, a report about the kidnapping of a college student went viral, stoking 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 over the trend toward encryption. Greg Nojeim, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology's Security and Surveillance Project, said police departments should find ways to mitigate privacy concerns without completely cutting off access to these radio channels.

“There is a societal benefit to getting immediate information about emergency situations, and I think we should hesitate to take measures that reduce that,” Nojeim said. “If there's an active shooting in a neighborhood near me, I want to know about it.”

Americans have long been listening to emergency communication channels. A few decades ago, tuning required buying a radio, equipping it with a crystal, and learning how to set it to the desired frequency.

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

Broadcastify founder Lindsay Blanton said his interest in police radios began in the 1980s, after watching his grandmother spend hours glued to a radio at her home in Charlottesville, Virginia, fascinated by police calls. and the firefighters.

“It's very much in American culture for people in small towns to have scanners to monitor what's going on in their community,” he said. Older women are among Broadcastify's most devoted listeners, Blanton said.

At any given time, there are tens of thousands of people listening to emergency radio chatter on Broadcastify's website and the commercial applications that rely on its broadcasts. During crises, such as the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the mass shooting during a concert in Las Vegas in 2017, viewership grows exponentially, Blaton said.

Adam Scott Wandt, a public policy professor 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 was concerned about the number of people who now routinely listen as police respond to calls about domestic violence, sexual assaults, 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 many true crime enthusiasts who like to listen to live police broadcasts,” he said. “But we must remember that not only are voyeurs listening, but there is a possibility that the shooter they are looking for is listening.”

Some cities and counties that have restricted access to scanner traffic have taken steps to keep the public informed.

When Las Vegas encrypted its police channel in 2018, it set up a system for some journalists to maintain access. After facing backlash to its encryption plan, Chicago agreed to continue providing its stream to Broadcastify, but with a 30-minute delay. The San Diego County Sheriff's Department began providing an emergency call log that excludes precise addresses and names.

In the Indianapolis area, which has a large and devoted community of emergency radio listeners, the topic of encryption has sparked heated debate this year. The city had an unusually high number of homicides in 2021 and 2022, focusing special attention on crime. Police conduct has also drawn particular attention in the city this year, with police officers firing weapons at people in at least 18 incidents.

Mike Hubbs, director of the 911 center in Hamilton County in central Indiana, which adopted encryption in the summer, said the state's dispatchers have come to view the large audience listening to their work as an added stressor in a high risk occupation. .

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

At any given time, more than 800 people listen 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 go to crime scenes to support victims and try to get to the root causes of violence. Keeping track of police operations in real time, Harrison said, has been crucial in his efforts.

Recent police shootings have tested trust between residents and officers, he said. The prospect of encryption – closing off what residents can hear – worries him.

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

To Hester, a longtime Indianapolis listener, encryption seems like a mistake for a different reason: The scanner has made her appreciate how hard the work is.

“Those officers go through hell,” said Hester, who falls asleep at night listening to Broadcastify. “If people heard half of what we heard on the scanner, they would be so appreciative of our officers.”

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