A brief in this week’s Monterey County Weekly about a scrap between county police agencies and media outlets over the encryption of police radio traffic got me thinking.
First, as a former reporter who spent years in newsrooms with police scanners squawking just loud enough to be heard by a stressed-out desk editor or an amped-up cop reporter, I naturally side with the media on this one. I hope the Law Enforcement Officer Association changes direction.
For myself and my erstwhile colleagues, police scanners were a valuable tool that provided a rolling outline of what was happening in the local emergency services world. They’re critical for photographers and camera crews, whose appetites are whetted by locations of big traffic accidents, water rescues or street closures caused by police incidents. Often the first hint of something bigger – an armed robbery or drive-by shooting – came when the newsroom scanner emitted a be-on-the-lookout for suspects or getaway cars. Never once did I hear of any police complaints about the media misusing scanners.
Secondly, my nostalgia circuits switched on full as I thought about about the times newsroom scanners sent me or colleagues out the door headed to a big fire, a shooting or, just a few years ago, after a black bear lumbering through a Seaside neighborhood.
I recalled rookie lessons in decoding scanner language — the state Penal Code numbers for serious crimes, the police 10-code, the frequencies used by different police and fire agencies. I heard dispatchers use the term X-Ray for a female — as in, “See the X-Ray at (such-and-such location)” — but never figured out why. In scanner world, there were males and X-rays.
At my first newspaper job in the Humboldt County hamlet of Garberville, I had two electrical devices on my desk, a pencil sharpener and a police scanner. The sharpener probably provided more practical use. The only channel the scanner picked up clearly was used by the volunteer fire department. Since the volunteers were alerted to any emergency by thunderous horn blasts that rattled every window in town, the scanner wasn’t necessary to sound the alert in my one-man newsroom. Still I liked to see the tiny bank of red lights flash by on the scanner. I felt a link to a bigger world beyond the office walls.
I recall cop reporters who fussed over their scanners — programming new frequencies, fine-tuning the squelch — as avidly as garage mechanics tuning up hot rods.
A guaranteed heart-thumper was riding shotgun with a photographer with a scanner on the dashboard blaring at top volume. The photographer would be pressing the pedal to the metal, passing cars right and left, steering with one hand while fiddling with the scanner knobs and then yell over the din, “Did you catch the address?”
While the radio traffic offered bare tips on whether a consequential story might be breaking, I don’t recall any sensitive information about a crime or emergency being relayed on a newsroom scanner.
Both police and fire agencies seemed to routinely use tactical channels on frequencies we didn’t know for that kind of talk. You’d invariably hear instructions to switch over to the “silver channel,” or “channel B” just as things got interesting. Often, you’d hear cops at the scene being told to “use a landline” to relay information.
In recent years, to the frustration of myself and other nosy reporters, police scanner traffic provided sparser information. Transmissions from fire agencies rolling medical crews to emergencies provided a better inkling something was happening.
Scanner traffic never substituted for reporters and cameras on the scene. At a minimum, a reporter would call a police commander if something caught their ear on the scanner and ask, “What the heck is going on?”
No self-respecting reporter or editor would base a story on unverified radio calls. The line gets a little blurry today with social media, but responsible media tweeting on scanner traffic attribute it to emergency radio reports and underscore that it’s unverified. The old rule that it’s best to be right rather than first is still a good rule.
The move by local police agencies to screen scanner transmissions from the media behind encryption seems a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist. The Weekly reported that police agencies are concerned for the safety of officers who may be harmed by criminals monitoring scanners after a major crime. But criminals, along with hardcore cop reporters, overnight convenience store clerks and other insomniacs, have been listening to police scanners since I began work in a newsroom 40 years ago.
My inner cynic thinks it’s just excuse to plunk down public money on some fancy new police radio equipment. Legitimate security issues should be worked out between media outlets and police agencies. That would build trust between two key players in the community. Just saying no doesn’t instill trust, and it further obscures what the police do from the public they serve.
When I started journalism, a reporter working the cop beat on a medium-sized daily paper would start a shift by swinging by major city and county sheriff stations to check overnight reports, daily incident logs and chat up officers and other staff members in patrol and detective divisions. The rest of the day was doing interviews on non-daily stories, making phone checks with smaller city cop shops and checking out possible stories picked up on the scanner.
Today the cop beat has largely devolved to rewriting press releases, attending press conferences hours after major events and dealing with police media relations officers who typically respond to questions by saying they’re working on a press release. It’s a one-way system in which virtually the only police news reported are stories fed to every media outlet.
Partly it’s because of the lack of full-time cop reporters in depleted newsrooms. But timely access to basic police records such as daily activity logs was always a battle with insular departments. Years ago, some agencies started putting such records online. But they lagged a day or two behind. If an entry caught a reporter’s eye, it was certain no one would be around to talk about it for days or longer.
Aside from press briefings, staged events and interactions with public affairs officers, personal contact between reporters and police increasingly occurs only in the field at major incidents. A few reporters may have personal cell numbers for trusted sources among police ranks. But these well-sourced cop reporters are getting rare as newsrooms shrink.
That leaves police scanners – always a vital tool in community journalism – as one of the last unfiltered human links between the police and the people trying to keep their communities informed. It’s a bond that shouldn’t be easily tossed aside.