Police scanners are a part of every media outlet newsroom. They provide real-time audio access to police, fire and paramedic emergency calls as they come in. It’s how news crews get to the scene of an accident or an emergency situation quickly — in some cases before the first responders.
But the news crews aren’t the only ones listening.
Police scanners have been around about as long as the police radios. Enthusiasts have been listening just as intently as the policemen, firemen and paramedics who use the radios to communicate with each other and the dispatchers. Since it’s perfectly legal to buy a scanner, anyone can get one and start listening. However, most people with a spare $400 in their pocket would rather buy a new iPad, iPhone or similar smart device. Unbeknownst to most people, when buying a smartphone or any internet connected smart device, they also acquire scanner capabilities.
There are several free smartphone apps that rebroadcast pretty much any police, fire and paramedic frequency for any city in the country. There is no longer a need to learn how to program a complex digital trunking scanner, because the people creating the apps have already taken care of that for you. All you have to do is tell the app your location, or let GPS figure it out, and you can listen in.
Unfortunately, this means criminals can do the same. The new apps are free, allow one to be mobile, and make it extremely easy to tap into the radio transmissions allowing anyone to hear everything that’s going on from pretty much anywhere. Many law enforcement agencies say this is giving criminals an upper-hand in avoiding capture. Criminals will hear the emergency dispatch and leave before the police arrive. They also say it puts officers in jeopardy, because criminals will know their location ahead of time and can plan attacks. All big concerns given the recent civil unrest, looting and rioting that has been popping up all around the country. There seems to be a growing animosity towards the police and allowing the bad guys to listen in could make the situation worse.
As a result, some local law enforcement agencies are now encrypting their radio transmissions, rendering all their communications unintelligible to those who don’t have the same encryption keys. And obviously, those encryption keys will not be made available to the public. This not only renders the apps obsolete, but also the scanners which disappoints many of the innocent enthusiasts.
While the participating law enforcement agencies claim this is a necessity brought about by the times, many opponents to encryption argue this allows the law enforcement agencies to operate behind a veil of secrecy. It’s no longer possible for the public to monitor the police as a form of checks and balances. It also prevents the general public from getting important real-time information to events that may be happening in their area. They also contend it creates a form of information blackout, in that local law enforcement can control what information is released, and when. Local media outlets will lose an important tool for reporting traffic accidents and breaking news events.
Local law enforcement agencies say this isn’t true. They contest any and all radio transmissions are available to the public upon written request, and that the only difference is, the public won’t get the information in real-time. Clearly, events that are seven days old are no longer important and whose to say the information released by the police won’t be redacted?
Police scanners are not new. They have been around for decades, even mobile units, and this has never been a concern brought to the forefront by the police before. So why now?
No law abiding citizen disagrees that the police need to catch the bad guys, but the citizens need to know the police aren’t the bad guys. In some cities, it’s now illegal to video record a police officer, and if it’s also impossible to listen to them, then they truly are operating behind a veil of secrecy.