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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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Leslie Sonne July 12, 2017, 7:58 am

    Hi Royal- No one could ever explain the “X-ray” to me either, but what seemed logical was that women have two copies of the X chromosome vs. men having one X and one Y chromosome. To let jailers know the sex of the inbound prisoner, to ensure the proper gender staff member was available, someone chose “X-ray” for the women as at least back in the day there were fewer female bookings and there was no designation for the more frequent male bookings. Saying “female” and “male” would not have worked as the first part of transmissions often are cut off so there would have either been lots or repeating or lots of shuffling of staff when they were preparing for a male and a female showed up. I did try to transport a “Y” one time and that did not go over well…..

  • Leslie Sonne July 12, 2017, 8:04 am

    Larry- sorry, I missed your by-line! Please correct if you post my comment! Leslie

  • Helga Fellay July 12, 2017, 8:56 am

    The key phrase to me was: “it further obscures what the police do from the public they serve.”

    As video footage, taken by bystanders, of police brutality, including killings of unarmed “suspects” – including of children – have caused the police much grief. Although police are almost never held accountable by the courts, there has been a huge public backlash, probably BECAUSE our justice system is not holding police accountable, which in turn encourages police to act with impunity. This in turn has resulted in attacks on the police by enraged members of the public, including the murder of innocent policemen and women. This in turn has resulted in many police to quit their jobs, and made it almost impossible to fill vacancies in shrinking police departments. So I can fully understand why the police want to obscure what they do from the public eye. What I don’t understand is why the police would choose to deal with their every real problem by making the problem even bigger. Obscuring what they do from the public will not inspire public trust in the police. Quite the contrary. What they need to do to win back the public’s trust is clean house. Instead of covering up for the misdeeds of rogue cops who enjoy brutalizing people, these micreants should at a minimum be fired. There should be better screening of recruits for possible psychological issues for those who want to be on the force, not to serve the public, but for a license to abuse and kill. In addition, there needs to be intensive in-house training to stop racial discrimination in the force. In other words, if you discover a cancer, kill the cancer. Obscuring the disease by hiding it from public scrutiny is not the cure. It’s the wrong response.

  • gin July 12, 2017, 10:23 am

    Photojournalist Weegee started to work out of Manhattan Police Headquarters, he would arrive around midnight and check the Teletype machine for stories. After a few years, he decided he didn’t want to wait for the news to come over the Teletype. He bought himself a 1938 Chevy Coupe, a press card, and he was allowed to have a POLICE RADIO IN HIS CAR. (the ONLY PRESS PHOTOGRAPHER EVER ALLOWED TO HAVE A POLICE RADIO IN THEIR CAR) Weegee’s car was his home away from home, his office on the road. In the trunk he kept everything he would need, including a portable darkroom, extra cameras, flash bulbs, a typewriter, etc.
    His car was his pressroom, take a look: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/C0_OHAiW8AAnEzD.jpg

  • david fairhurst July 12, 2017, 10:27 am

    What a wonderful reminiscence Mr. Parsons. (Garberville is indeed a special place too). Sad that quality journalism, and especially local, seems to have become a thing of the past
    Yes, I agree with you Helga. Bad cops do occur, as in all aspects of humanity and professions. I believe that it comes from the top down and one bad apple can indeed spoil the barrel. There is a “Blue Wall” mentality amongst many police officers containing a mantra within that isolated group that ‘everybody’ out there is, or a potential, “hostile” and criminal. Thank you for recognizing that it isn’t just “minorities” that suffer from poor policing, but all of our society (including our police too).
    You might be surprised at the number of “questionable quality” officers former Sheriff Mike Kanalakas quietly “removed” during his terms, and bless him for it. It is a difficult to “clean house” with politics, staffing and Unions as they are. Sheriff “Mike” showed it can be done with good conscience and positive results. I think Sheriff Steve Bernel is trying to do well for us too.
    Maybe it was better in the past when good reporters were around as “it” was happening, being a sort of “camera maintaining the integrity” of civil servants. I have more faith and trust in that Larry Parsons (even if we have had “words” between us in the past) of being an impartial observer if I were to be arrested rather than a the officer making that arrest with a (controlled) “body camera”.

  • Carol Ryan July 12, 2017, 3:14 pm

    As reporters, we needed always to be cautioned about the thrill or “rush” feeling of being there with the scoop and reminded of our responsibility of how to present it. That was the editor’s job. Larry Parson’s comments brought memories of news staff, listening as alerts broke from a scanner mounted on a shelf high in the corner of the newsroom; an editor barking orders to chase it. There was also… often, a radio in that room, tuned to a local station of continuous news whose reporters also used scanners; getting and giving nearly immediate information to the public over the air waves. The newspaper’s photographer gave visual information worth a thousand words, often that very day.
    Now our visuals are television videos presented on a continuous loop with guidelines of “what moves, grooves or bleeds, leads;” they are quick and vivid clips, often provided from personal, private cell phone cameras. We have talk radio; all opinion, no news and unidentified sources. The ladies and guys in blue used to be some our best sources. The news source is important, the presentation of the news, even more important.
    Thanks to Royal Caulkins for giving us an alternative, often thoughtful, news feed.

  • Carol Ryan July 12, 2017, 3:16 pm

    I don’t understand. Do you want me to change it?

  • James Toy July 12, 2017, 5:46 pm

    Larry, as a scanner owner myself, I wholeheartedly agree with your position. Being able to listen in on police calls gives, or rather gave, private citizens valuable insights into the workings of local police departments. For the most part it gave me a greater appreciation for the work they do.

    Listening to the scanner also gave me a broader perspective on the community as a whole, and helped me know more about the goings-on in my own neighborhood. Were those pops I heard firecrackers or gunshots? I could turn on the scanner and find out. Now I’m left to guess.

    And let’s not forget that civilians with scanners sometimes helped solve crimes. Years ago someone was beaten up on the rec trail in PG, and a guy in Del Rey Oaks listening to his scanner realized the suspects were parked on the street outside of his house, resulting in a quick arrest.

    But in the 16 years I’ve had a scanner, the number of times I heard police discussing tactics as they worked to apprehend someone were pretty few. In such cases I could see why they’d want to switch to an encrypted tactical frequency, but that’s no reason why every routine transmission should be kept from public ears. After all, we’re paying their salaries so we should be able to keep an ear on them.

  • bill leone July 15, 2017, 8:06 pm

    Everything possible should be done to prevent the Local Police, in whatever City or Township, from becoming the Local SECRET Police. Certainly someone in local law enforcement has enough brains to figure out ways to use radio messages to their advantage. Some examples: use Morse Code for sensitive operations, use code words (as they do in hospitals, “paging Dr Strong”), use evasive tactics to throw bad guys off the track: “Mrs Jones needs help with her cat stuck in a tree, at 1235 Longitude & 6789 Latitude.” As with the military, the police, who have the capability to use deadly force (& do so with alarming regularity, with catastrophic results), must have civilian oversight; otherwise, we will be traveling even faster towards a tin-horn dictatorship.

    In addition, every local police force needs Community Involvement, not community exclusion, to be effective. That’s what Modern Law Enforcement is all about: Stopping Crime is a Community Thing, Not just a Police Thing.

  • Jim guy July 16, 2017, 5:59 am

    Nothing is blocked. Digital scanners cost more, but transmissions can still be heard.

    • James Toy July 18, 2017, 11:13 pm

      Not if they’re encrypted.

  • Jim guy July 16, 2017, 9:44 am

    Digital radios also have a serious downside for
    Police because of the so-called “digital cliff,” meaning digital transmissions don’t just get weaker, the just stop abruptly, leaving officers incommunicado. I believe more than han a few police agencies have had serious problems with this.
    If the monterey chief thinks his transition to digital will be a walk in the park, he is very naive. He is also seriously underestimating the abilities of our hackers.😜

  • Sam Donald July 17, 2017, 8:15 pm

    Just about all law enforcement agencies furnish cell phones and laptop computers for their officers. This equipment is to be used for official business and cost the taxpayers a lot of money. If one would check the justification for the equipment two common items would probably be listed close to the top: the need for confidential communications and officer safety.
    Now they want to encrypt police radio communication, which will cost additional sums of money to accomplish the same goals as above. I for one don’t buy it. Maybe the administrators can come up with better justifications or deep six the cell phones and laptops to save money? The encryption plan seems to be a duplication and just doesn’t pencil out.

  • David Norum July 24, 2017, 8:19 am

    I don’t know what the modern digital equivalent of Mark Twain’s famous comment about not picking a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel is, but especially in this day and age, law enforcement should heed the advice. The loss of investigative reporters and actual editors of course contributes to the problem as well. “Back in the day” when I worked even somewhat secretive assignments as narcotics investigation or SWAT we at MoCoSO had a good working relationship with many TV and print reporters, inviting them on raids and communicating and cooperating with them when they did show up at a meth lab or drug bust or critical incident as a result of scanner chasing. They often got great stories and photos and film. There seems to be less of that going on now. We found being open and respectful of the media’s job almost always resulted in their doing the same for us. I also remember purposely writing funny, goofy entries with subtle double entendres or ridiculous alliteration in the patrol police log hoping they would be published verbatim. My Lieutenant banned me from writing any log entries without his approval after one particularly ribald description of three naked intoxicated people we found frolicking in a south county cemetery at 2 AM found its way into the local paper.