Police scanners have been the background noise in newsrooms as long as the technology has been available. And journalists have long been tasked having one ear tuned to them, speeding out the door as soon as the fire department is dispatched to a blaze or police and medics are dispatched to an accident scene.
Once on scene, we do our best to stay out of the way of emergency crews, while being witness to the event and passing along the story, photo and video to our customers once we have verified facts and information.
We’re not the only non-law enforcement officials who listen to emergency scanners, however. For decades, many private citizens have used the scanners to stay apprised of emergency chatter. Social media has changed the power and reach of those people, as well as others who can listen remotely via online scanner apps.
Some of those people could be criminals, using the scanner for nefarious reasons. A person could wait to hear when police are in another section of the county for instance, then commit a crime. Though no evidence of this happening in Eastern Oregon has been brought forward, radio and data districts are hoping to encrypt scanner traffic, so that police can communicate over non-public airwaves.
We’re opposed to that plan. It raises taxpayer costs while providing negligible benefit to emergency crews. Law enforcement has long had workarounds to the public scanner, including two-way radios and the ever-present cell phone technology.
We understand that sometimes scanner traffic is the enemy of good police work. We don’t expect officers to use it when setting up a sting, or to communicate their position or strategy in a SWAT environment.
But the minutia of police activity requires scrutiny. When an emergency situation arises, it is critical to get factual important information disseminated as quickly as possible. Oftentimes, emergency responders and responsible media are partners in that endeavor, warning people to get out of the way of a wildfire, or avoid a road that has been closed due to an accident.
Police scanners help keep the public apprised of the actions of our emergency responders. It should remain that way.