A Brief History of Listening In on Police Radios

A Brief History of Listening In on Police Radios
Illustration: Angelica Alzona (Photos: Shutterstock

Last Friday night, thousands defied New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s curfew order and marched in the rain, the fifth evening in a week marked by beatings and mass arrests after dark.

It was now common for police to leapfrog ahead of the crowd, assemble a chokepoint, and ambush with mass arrests on bridges, plazas, and narrow streets. (The official term is “kettling.”) In real time, a voice issued a series of warnings, as though watching from a helicopter. “If you are on ANY bridge crossing into Manhattan right now from Brooklyn, TURN AROUND AND GO BACK,” they said. “They are waiting at the other end and will arrest everyone upon arrival.”

Another, to a group of protesters at Grand Army Plaza: “They have you surrounded. If you haven’t already, please write emergency contacts on your body.” To those marching on Nostrand Avenue, they advised people who can’t afford to be arrested to “LEAVE NOW!” and to essential workers who’d been told they’d be allowed to travel: “DO NOT BELIEVE THEM.”

The voice is @NYPDScanner1, one of several recently-formed Twitter accounts listening in to police scanners and transcribing them for protesters throughout the country. Downloads for scanner apps such as Police Scanner, Scanner Radio, and 5-0 Radio Police Scanner have skyrocketed since Minneapolis and then the nation rose up on May 26th; on Friday night, 5-0 Radio Police Scanner alone showed thousands of concurrent listeners on the NYPD citywide channels. Police radio frequencies have, themselves, became a protest site in Chicago, when hackers reportedly jammed scanners with “Chocolate Rain“ and “Fuck tha Police.”

That we can legally eavesdrop on police communications with now practically ancient technology feels miraculous. While the police can not only track protesters’ locations long after they’ve gone home but even scan their faces in order to pluck those with outstanding warrants out from a crowd, they make concerted efforts to hide themselves, from taping over their badges to concealing disciplinary records. So why in God’s name are they broadcasting their movements?

Briefly, at the dawn of one-way police radio in the 1920s, anyone with a run-of-the-mill radio could tune in to police communications alongside commercial stations. According to a 1942 paper from the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, the FCC begrudgingly allowed it, only on the condition that police played something for the at-home listeners as well:

“It is interesting to note that the Federal Radio Commission was to be found in opposition to the plans of the Detroit police. In the year 1923 the Detroit Police Department secured licence to operate on the broadcast band station KOP, but before the police could broadcast any call they were required to include an entertainment feature on the broadcast. As a result they played the tune “˜Yankee Doodle’ before making calls to officers on patrol.”

“Anyone with an ordinary receiver at home could tune in and hear the calls at WDKX, at 1684 on the AM dial,” author Christopher Bonanos wrote, of the NYPD, when it started broadcasting to its police cars in the 1930s. In Bonanos’s biography of the lurid crime scene photojournalist Weegee, the author added that by the mid-thirties (when around 2,000 police agencies were using radio), the NYPD switched to short-wave with a range of 122.5 meters, making their transmissions “slightly less public.” (Weegee famously possessed a rare police car radio, which he was able to lease for twenty-five dollars a year ” they were an outrageously expensive $US735 ($1,065) at the time ” and would cruise around the city all night picking up stories.) The general public wasn’t long to catch up and listen in to short-wave, evidenced by a 1935 article in Short Wave Craft magazine extolling the delights of a homemade short-wave radio: namely, hearing such “thrilling situations” as auto accidents, kidnappings, burglaries, and murders.

circa 1930: A member of the New York Metropolitan police using a radio-telephone link for communicating with the city's police radio cars. (Photo: General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)circa 1930: A member of the New York Metropolitan police using a radio-telephone link for communicating with the city’s police radio cars. (Photo: General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

But the commercially produced police radio scanners, as we know them, didn’t hit the mass market until the 1970s, coinciding with an alt-radio craze ushered in by Citizens Band, or CB radio: a two-way short-wave device through which one person at a time could broadcast messages on a single channel. Truckers popularised their use during the 1970s oil crisis, when they were limited to 55-per-hour speed limits and used CB radio to tip each other off about speed traps; they captured the imagination of country singers like Johnny Cash, as well as First Lady Betty Ford (handle: “First Mama“) and Bugs Bunny voice actor Mel Blanc, who entertained Los Angeles over CB radio.

The first police radio scanners of the early seventies were practically useless by today’s standards, as users needed to purchase a tuning crystal for each frequency. (An older radio technology, the crystal, typically a tiny piece of lead sulfide, acts as a diode which allows the alternating current caused by radio waves to pass through in only one direction, modulating and smoothing the audio signal, essentially deciphering the sound. Here’s a good explainer from a 1944 issue of Popular Mechanics.) By 1975, a “tunable” model evolved, and a few years later, programmable scanners with digital displays began to resemble the present version.

Some felt that certain over-enthusiastic police radio scanner users tarnished the CB community’s reputation. In 1976, a Los Angeles Times article reported that “legitimate” CB radio users were “aghast” when as many as twenty-five “renegages” used CB radio and police scanners to cruise around Long Beach monitoring a $US7,000 ($10,140) ransom pickup. “The pickup was never made, police speculated, because the sight of many unmarked cars with antennas may have frightened off the kidnappers,” the Times wrote, adding that a known local “CB organisation” of armed vigilantes in uniforms were using police scanners to make “citizen arrests.”

Image: The Tyler Courier-Times, November 1983Image: The Tyler Courier-Times, November 1983

“Some police officials believe it is that mentality, enforced by television police show jargon, that makes CB radio and police scanner owners feel that they are “˜privileged,’ or pseudo-cops, entitled to get in on the action,” the paper reported.

But other citizens immediately recognised their symbolic weight, rather than acting out TV scripts. The Black Panthers adopted police scanners to look for local arrests in progress and arrived with weapons, delivering legal advice, as part of a larger movement-building strategy. In 2016, Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale told the Los Angeles Times that “patrolling the police” was a “tactic” to capture the people’s imagination. “If I can capture their imagination, I can get them to register to vote, take over the city council, the county seats,” Seale said. “That was the whole idea of the Black Panther Party.”

Image: The Berkeley Gazette, June 11th, 1980Image: The Berkeley Gazette, June 11th, 1980

Advancements have briefly shut out citizen listeners over the years, and the market caught up to those. In the 1980s, police switched to 800 MHz bands and employed “trunking,” which digitally pools users on a system and allocates them an available frequency from a group ” which was mostly beyond the reach and literacy of traditional scanners and briefly made scanners exorbitantly expensive. According to the blog Radio Scanner Guide, police departments further compounded scanner hobbyists’ headache in the 2000s by implementing voice modulation techniques which required a “digital card” to interpret, at first upping the cost of a scanner to $US700 ($1,014) from the standard $US100 ($145)-$US200 ($290) range. Enthusiasts would lose out again to the dying market for radio itself: one prominent citizen scanner told the Washington Post that Radio Shack “abandoned” scanner listeners when it pivoted to more popular devices.

“It’s definitely in decline,” Lewis Speakman, who runs a scanner enthusiast YouTube channel “Ringway Manchester,” told Gizmodo, of the scanning hobby in general. Speakman says that police and emergency services are rapidly going dark behind digital encryption. “These cannot be monitored, and even if a scanner was released which could do this, the long term future of emergency communications lies with 5G in most countries.” For example, AT&T is marketing a smartphone IoT device with a push-to-talk function to first responders. In 2018, Samsung promised that smartphones would replace the “police technology of yesteryear,” like land radio, since police using smartphones are “better able to connect with dispatch by quickly using voice, text, photo, location-sharing and all the other benefits that come with smart technology.”

On top of that, several United States departments have encrypted their radio communications, as in Knoxville, Tennessee after zealous members of a wildly popular neighbourhood watch Facebook group showed up to local crime scenes. (The group co-founder and former freelance news photographer John Messner told Gizmodo that the goal was to expose the police for allegedly underreporting rampant theft.) Police radio has gone silent, too, in Denver, where police told local media that scanners pose a risk of tipping off police stalkers. The UK has simply outlawed the use (but not ownership) of radio scanners altogether. And of course most agencies in the U.S. already encrypt sensitive broadcasts by tactical, narcotics, and SWAT teams.

In the U.S., it’s perfectly legal to intercept publicly-available police broadcasts. It’s right there in the Wiretap Act, which says that it shall not be unlawful “to intercept any radio communication which is transmitted…by any governmental, law enforcement, civil defence, private land mobile, or public safety communications system, including police and fire, readily accessible to the general public.” That’s a precious clear right to monitor police in real time when the public can only obtain body cam footage, if at all, by FOIA request (typically an excruciatingly slow process), and police have shut them off and warned each other when they were on. As the Radio Television Digital News Association has noted, the law around rebroadcasting those communications is a little murkier, but arguably protected by the Constitution.

New York has somewhat tamped down on scanning nonetheless; you can be imprisoned for six months for equipping a car with a police radio scanner, unless you have an amateur radio operator’s licence from the FCC. But the NYPD may not want to migrate to encryption simply because messing with emergency communications interoperability poses life-and-death risks. This was the conclusion of the Orange County, California fire department, which recently decided to decrypt its radio after years of encryption prevented departments from communicating during emergencies. “All encryption has done is give us a bunch of headaches,” Orange County Fire Authority Captain Paul Holaday told the Los Angeles Times.

Image: General Electric, Audio Electronics Products Dept., Syracuse, N.Y., EbayImage: General Electric, Audio Electronics Products Dept., Syracuse, N.Y., Ebay

Encrypting channels might be much hairier for the NYPD’s vast catalogue of frequencies. “The New York City Police Department has tons of different divisions, between Brooklyn and Manhattan, and then they’re all broken down by their individual beats, and they all have their own radio frequency,” Lindsay Blanton, founder of Broadcastify, told Gizmodo. (If you’ve ever listened to a police scanner online, odds are it came from Broadcastify; the company, founded a decade ago, monitors 7,000 audio feeds spanning marine, aircraft, rail, and public safety communications, is free to listen to, and licenses its streams and recordings to apps and federal agencies.)

Surprisingly, Blanton said, a lot of departments proactively supply access; about 15 per cent of public safety feeds on Broadcastify are provided directly by departments, the majority of which are fire departments (not the NYPD). “A lot of the police departments want their routine communications to be made available so that the press and the general public can hear,” Blanton told Gizmodo. That a police department values freedom of the press enough to offer up their communications for livestreaming requires a lot of suspension of disbelief for most Americans. But perhaps the Bend, Oregon police department would like to publicise alleged progressive practices, like employing a mental health counselor to diffuse confrontation and prevent locking people up. In any case, journalists argue that scanners are still as integral to their jobs as social media.

Blanton says that he started listening to his grandmother’s police scanner as a kid in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the “˜80s, when casual listening was a common community activity ” Blanton says that it still is, in small towns. In 1998, he started the business RadioReference, a sort of online updated-daily phone book for scanner frequencies, where you can look up each of the thousands of public safety, air traffic, and maritime broadcasts. (The site also hosts a lively forum with threads devoted to bizarre dispatches and bemoaning the future.) Blanton says that the general public first flocked to online scanner streams during the 2013 manhunt for the Boston bomber; this past weekend, 275,000 people tuned in directly to Broadcastify alone, which doesn’t account for all of the listens on police scanner apps. (When asked whether scanner tourists bother his users, Blanton conceded that there’s gatekeeping, but that comes with hobby territory.)

Whether the scanning hobby fades, scanners continue to help capture police brutality. In 2016, the Baton Rouge-based anti-violence activist group Stop the Killing followed scanner communications to the scene of Alton Sterling’s murder; they recorded on camera a police officer pinning him to the ground and executing him point-blank outside a convenience store after answering a call that a man with a gun was selling CDs. The group didn’t necessarily intend to use scanners to capture the police shooting ” they’d been using scanners for years to film murders in order to deter youth from joining violent gangs. But they found it, and the murder sparked protests, which the police countered with what the ACLU called a “military-grade assault.”

For a master class in police radio scanner use, look no further than the recently-formed Twitter account @NYPDPoliceRadio, which is manned by a group of a few dozen listeners to citywide channels, while one person live tweets. The account has tweeted over 3,000 times since June 5th.

not-unthinkable) event that tech companies decide to ban the apps.

Scanners not only enable them to track police movements; the broadcasts confirm the violent whims of the police, plainly verbalized.

“We’ve heard a few shocking things ” ‘Shoot the motherfucker,’ followed immediately by “˜Don’t put that over the air’ stands out in my mind,” one person wrote. “As does “˜Just run them over,’ in response to protesters blocking the road ” just a day after De Blasio defended a different instance of police cars purposefully running into protesters.” They’ve been amused to hear the NYPD frequently confusing the geography of neighbourhoods they police and even “dispatching cops to cross streets that don’t exist.” If you don’t believe them, they’ve posted the audio.

They say that over the past week, cops “clearly have been incredibly focused on getting their act together” ” they believe, switching to cell phones and email to hide information about their movements. This isn’t a cat-and-mouse game to @NYPDPoliceRadio. The fact that the public needs police scanners at all is the fucked-up result of police attempting covert ops in a pointless war against innocent people. “Random people monitoring radios and writing to social media shouldn’t be a primary source for folks learning about an armed tool of the government,” they wrote. “They’re beating folks up and killing them for christsake. There should be meaningful and robust structures in place. Instead, we are dependent on these tertiary channels the cops are in the process of cleaning up. Plus, we know they monitor technology usage, so people cannot even do this work without risking police surveillance. How is this acceptable?”