More police departments around the country are seeking to shield their live radio communications. Above, a radio in a police cruiser in Connecticut.
A report of a suspicious person crackled from John Messner’s RadioShack police scanner, one of two he keeps at his home in Knoxville, Tenn.
When an officer was heard yelling “Shots fired!” minutes later, Mr. Messner knew it was time to go. The 52-year-old construction worker and photographer grabbed his two cameras, his portable scanner, jumped in his 1999 Plymouth Voyager minivan, and raced to the scene 3 miles away, where a suspected burglar was shot by police.
“When I got there, the guy was still on the ground, they hadn’t put him in the ambulance yet,” said Mr. Messner of the November incident. “It didn’t look like he was dead, but he was definitely hit.”
Mr. Messner snapped pictures and posted them on his Knoxville Crime Facebook group, which has 94,000 members in a city of 186,000. They come to see photos, read Mr. Messner’s live updates on police chases and burglaries that he gets from the police scanner, and discuss neighborhood crime issues.
Social-media groups like Knoxville Crime are one reason that Knoxville police officials say they will begin encrypting police radio communications in August, making it impossible for the public—and Mr. Messner—to listen in live. The move comes as more police departments around the country are seeking to shield their live radio communications, now easily accessible via smartphone apps. Police say the effort will keep officers safe and bad guys from finding out what they’re doing.
“When you’re putting out information that only a suspect and a victim and an officer knows, then all of the sudden you have someone put that on social media, that takes your advantage away,” said Darrell DeBusk, a Knoxville police spokesman.
Earlier this year, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department encrypted its radio traffic, alleging that bad guys “monitor police radio frequencies in order to better facilitate their crimes and gather intelligence about the whereabouts of police officers.” Pueblo, Colo., police blocked their scanner traffic recently, citing suspects using scanner apps to avoid officers.
Local media still has access to the live radio transmissions in Las Vegas—police allow them to purchase their own radios. In Knoxville, the radio traffic will be posted after a one-hour delay, said Mr. DeBusk.
These moves have rankled scanner enthusiasts who range from people curious about police activity in their neighborhood to modern-day Weegees, the New York City freelance photographer known for his raw crime-scene photos. Many scanner buffs are police supporters who want to help solve crimes, making the decision to go dark a difficult one, police officials say.
“It’s a tough choice because many of the pro-police people out in the community who support their local police get that way because they listen to their police on these scanners or phone apps,” said Richard Myers, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association.
Some police departments have found a solution by using encrypted channels for more sensitive work, such as a SWAT team readying for a raid, while keeping the more mundane police patrol work on the publicly available channel, he said.
In Colorado, a push to encrypt police radio traffic inspired a bill backed by scanner enthusiasts earlier this year that would have banned encryption, except for sensitive situations. The bill failed with strong opposition from law enforcement.
“These are government agents working for the taxpayers and I think citizens have the right to know what they’re doing,” said Robert Wareham, an attorney who helped draft the bill.
Mr. Wareham, a former police officer, said he uses his scanner to find out about police activity in his neighborhood or on the roads. “There are six or seven times a year where I avoid a dangerous situations where I know what’s going on,” he said.
In Knoxville, Mr. DeBusk, the police spokesman, said the prevalence of smartphone apps that broadcast police communications, such as Broadcastify, has made it easier for criminals to listen in.
“You’ve always had people that had scanners, but it was not as common as the smartphone apps,” said Mr. DeBusk. “We actually have arrested people, they’ve had the smartphone on them and we could hear our own dispatchers, the sound coming from their smartphone.”
Lindsay Blanton, the CEO of Broadcastify’s parent company RadioReference.com, called this an “overdone complaint.” The approximately 200,000 daily unique listeners tuning in to Broadcastify’s 6,600 feeds typically hear police communications on a 45 second to three minute delay and the company bans sensitive content, he said.
“It’s providing more an entertainment type perspective than the ability to gain an advantage over law enforcement,” said Mr. Blanton said.
People can listen to public safety, aircraft, rail and marine audio streams from across the country on Broadcastify. The company relies on volunteers who send local feeds from their scanners and in some cases police departments who do the same because “there are a lot of agencies that value the general public being more involved,” said Mr. Blanton.
Mr. Messner, of the Knoxville Crime Facebook group, said he thinks city officials don’t like the pressure that the group puts on them to deal with crime in the city.
Cutting off the scanner will cut off Mr. Messner’s access to the subjects of his photographs, some of which have made news themselves. Back in 2014, he went to the scene of unruly college party and photographed a Knox County Sheriff’s deputy with his hands around the throat of handcuffed college student. The deputy was fired over the incident, but then allowed to retire.
“I was at the right place at the right time,” he said. “I listened to the scanner and I heard things escalating.”