Several years ago, in the mid-2000s, The Inyo Register’s Badge Byline column featured an entry about a police officer who responded to a local residence and, through the window, saw drugs and drug paraphernalia on the man’s coffee table – right next to a police scanner. And there the scanner sat while the resident was taken into custody.
While the incident made for good reading and inspired plenty of “dumbest criminal” jokes, it could have had a very different outcome had the man inside the home actually been listening to the scanner and decided to put up a preemptive fight.
Or at least that’s the fear, as law enforcement agencies across the country take a closer look at the safety issue involving letting private citizens listen in on law enforcement communications.
In Inyo County, so many residents are listening to scanners that it’s becoming a hindrance to law enforcement doing its job, said Sheriff Bill Lutze.
“What we’ve had are a lot of instances where we are responding to calls and when we get there, the people are gone, the suspects are gone,” he said. “They hear us coming.”
Lutze is looking into upgrades that would allow his department to essentially “scramble” its radio transmissions, rendering them indecipherable to the public.
Lutze said he understands the scanner is a source of entertainment and even news for some residents, but “it interferes with our job performance, basically.” Suspects knowing the locations of deputies, their estimated times of arrival and other details about their activities not only makes evasion easy, but – again – it is also a serious safety issue, he said.
There is no law mandating the public broadcast of these communications, only that the frequencies be made public record, according to Federal Communications Commission regulations. Still, most agencies in the Eastern Sierra – fire, Forest Service, BLM, Bishop PD, California Highway Patrol – keep their channels open, switching to private channels during sensitive operations. Police departments of major cities also openly broadcast their radio calls, and there are numerous apps for smart phones and websites that allow citizens to listen in from anywhere in the country. The website www.broadcastify.com  bills itself as “the world’s largest source of public safety, aircraft, rail and marine radio live audio streams.”
Other agencies, such as the Pasadena Police Department and Kern County Sheriff’s Department, choose to keep all communications encrypted.
According to Lutze, there are numerous agencies scrambling their transmissions and the number is growing.
Much of the recent nationwide scrutiny that scanners have fallen under stems from the massive manhunt in April when Boston law enforcement agencies scoured the city for the marathon bombing suspects.
As online media outlets competed to get information out their first, resulting in a lot of misinformation being given to the public, thousands were tuned in to Broadcastify.
Citizens and journalists alike posted police radio transmissions to social media sites as if they were news updates, including the names of innocent residents thought to be “suspects.” According to journalist Dan Nosowitz, no one was bothering to verify information or wait to post their information until investigations were complete.
“When somebody calls the police and says they see a suspicious person lurking in an alley, what the public hears through the scanner is ‘possible suspicious person lurking in an alley.’ If it turns out to be a chair with a coat on it, that’s no big deal for the police; they investigated and resolved the call,” Nosowitz writes in an April 19 column titled “Should police scanners be public?” “But if a member of the media hears that, and the call happens to take place in a city in which a recent bombing has killed three and injured hundreds, that chair with the coat can turn into a terrorist with one tweet.”
The public’s intervention got so bad that at one point, the Boston Police Department took to Twitter with an appeal to stop publicizing officers’ tactical locations.
According to Lutze, the Inyo County Sheriff’s Department is at least a year away from encrypting its radio transmissions, and of course the project is reliant on funding.
“I’m looking into the costs,” he said.