The Most Powerful Crimefighting Tool?

You could hate such a system without ever noticing that you loved it to begin with for the simple reason that you never thought much about what the old system allowed you to do as a citizen of a free nation. Simply put, you could listen. Listen for yourself what newspapers and TV journalists only relay to you third-hand in the spirit of history, but not fact. You needed no governmental permission, you needed no special skill, you needed no special status, and you needed no special reason. You could listen all you wanted and it didn't matter because you were lucky enough to be born in the United States of America. And while it never occurred to anyone to make sure you could continue to listen as a guaranteed right, no one thought it would matter in the USA. After all, our police aren't secret police.

Aren't you talking about the right to play with police scanners?

Yes and no. For now scanner radios are the most efficient tool to use in maintaining listening rights as well as the other benefits we'll discuss. Unfortunately, increased digitalization and less reliance on actual voice communications will render something referred to as a police scanner irrelevant over time. Hence I'm not talking about the means so much as I am discussing the philosophy of public safety agencies. I'm talking about the value of live, open and proactive public safety broadcasts.

For all their glorious attributes on the agency side, trunked systems frustrate the scanner listener. Inexepensive scanner radios simply cannot keep up with all the random voice-hopping between frequencies. More complex trunked systems make listening in almost impossible. Many public safety agencies convert to trunked systems either disregarding the public listener, or "quietly" embracing the fact that trunked systems will hinder the public listener without taking a stand on the issue. The head administrator of the Hillsborough County, Florida system, who we'll safely call "John", has even gone so far as to tell this author outright that the public is why agencies go trunked to begin with. To quote our master of public relations, agencies go trunked to thwart "people like me". For those of you keeping tabs, that would mean people like you, too.

Maybe John was just having a bad day. Maybe he was even just kidding. Maybe he was wasn't John at all, but the inexperienced intern who handles John's call backs. Whatever the case, the comment in and of itself is a powerful revelation as to why open broadcasting is important in a free society. As John so accidentally demonstrated, closed systems promote an incorrect perception of American society which is that this is a world of us and them.

It's About Communication!

In fact, it is about communication. And the simple truth is that at least one solution to the communication problem has existed for over 60 years. That solution has been open broadcasting, and enforcing open broadcasting as a right almost belittles the grand public benefits that it provides. It has existed for decades as a means for the individual to mentally participate in the crimefighting process, to develop pro-police attitudes, and aid public safety in countless meaningful ways.

  As a right, however, open broadcasting is more critical than you may realize. In Hillsborough County, it has been reported that the "select" media will have access to the live patrolcasts while average citizens will not. If this sounds like state government sponsoring corporate media: it is. A common definition of "media" for the "approval" process is any organization involved in the full-time organization and distribution of news. When the government aligns itself with media, making a political game out of access to live broadcasts, you and I as individuals will literally become mental slaves of Willard Scott. Or your local "fresh out college" news anchor. Or Dick Clark. You get the point.

Public Safety Solutions

If you are a police administrator contemplating the open/closed broadcast issue in your own area, this page may serve as an idea resource to help you consider the issue from a pro-access standpoint. Some of these ideas are already implemented by police agencies, while others can only serve as innovative suggestions.

Bear in mind that these ideas range from the most passive to the most proactive, in keeping with future technology that will dictate exclusive proactive measures.

The Conventional Solution

The most simple solution to open broadcasting may be the least possible. That is simply to keep things the way they are now. Unfortunately, with frequencies more and more in demand, and the lure of better flexibility, upgrading to a trunked or digital system is likely an irresistable eventuality.

The big deal behind conventional systems is that they are easily monitorable using inexpensive radio scanners. Radio scanners are available at many common retail outlets such as Radio Shack.

Although police scanners can be used in the commission of some very negative and therefore newsworthy events, the plus side is that they are also powerful tools against crime. Often the difference in perception is simply in exploitation of radio scanners as mediums of awareness. Radio Shack recommends radio scanners be the part of every crimewatch effort.

When your agency goes trunked it will no longer be scannable by these inexpensive scanners. Many trunked radio manufacturers will sell you the trunked system on a partial premise that it will be more secure. However well intended these manufacturers may be in attempting to evaluate your concerns, they are vendors of technology, not agents of public policy. It will be up to you, as someone educated and experienced in law enforcement, to assess your position on the value of community awareness in clearing crimes or protecting the public. The newer technology will make your communications more secure, but the question is, what part of that overall security can you safely sacrifice in return for positive public rapport?

You can probably no longer afford to keep your current system the way it is, but understanding the conventional solution will help you to understand why alternative solutions are important, and what you are deducting from the public effort while you increase that of your organization's.

Once your communications network goes trunked, it may still be reasonably scannable by conventional scanners. This will depend on whether or not you are going to a digital/encrypted system, or an analog system. Furthermore, the feasibility of scanning your system will depend on the number of agencies that will join the network. Scannerists enjoy being able to focus on particular districts at different times. So many agencies using a single trunked network destroy this feasibility and other solutions become necessary.

Public Purchase Policies

When you decide to upgrade to a scanner-hostile system, it may not be long before you encounter opposition from local media organizations who will insist on some form of compensation in order to continue listening. After all, radio scanners were probably a key tip-generator and locking out the media may dramatically affect their newsgathering efforts. Police departments are usually very happy to oblige these outlets by providing them with receive-only radios.

This leads to a natural public solution: Sell the same radios to everyone. While many scannerists would be happier remaining as anonymous ears, a good compromise is to complete background checks and other fundamental character-based screening, while providing the radios to anyone who asks for one. The radios are therefore accounted for, and in some technologically sophisticated systems, can be controlled by the department as needed. Seattle Washington is one place that has settled on a public-purchase policy for its citizenry.

This is by far the most controversial plan. Some scannerists will object to any control of their radios by the police, and will certainly dislike the idea of registering. Furthermore, unless bought second-hand, these radios may be quite expensive, precluding wide public absorbtion that makes open broadcasting so valuable. And they certainly aren't as spontaneously appreciated as the general-purpose radio scanner capable of otherwise picking up anything. However, as I say, this is a compromise between the compulsion of some people to know what is going on, and the police need for accountability and control.

The usual alternative, deciding which media outlets are "truly" media organizations, can lead to some serious philisophical problems, the most serious of which is whether or not such a policy encourages state-sponsored media. After all, it may be too tempting to play politics with the privilege of live access. Furthermore, there may also be legal questions involved in states with "sunshine laws", such as in Florida.

Criminal and Crisis Incident Notification Bureau

Strictly speaking, open broadcasting refers to keeping public safety broadcast monitorable by the general citizenry. Doing so is considered the best and most efficient way to keep people in touch with police for all kinds of reasons. Open broadcasting perpetuates the arguments that such live access to police work curbs distrust towards police, encourages community support, and even assists both citizens and police in rendering aid, and clearing certain crimes.

Unfortunately, while simple open broadcasting will likely be viable for decades to come, I foresee a day when actual voice communication between officers gives way to non-verbal coordination techniques -- decreasing the likelihood of deriving the benefits given above. We see examples of this in increased dependence on MDT communication, video-to-base transmissions, etc. Even if the future does not completely resolve the need to use voice in order to direct and coordinate police efforts, the sect of police work used on-air will be so tactically specific, that the context of the situation will not be in any way useable or beneficial to the public. For this day, and perhaps for the present, another solution is required.

The solution is for public safety officials to take in-depth control of all forms of communication appliances and techniques, and to build "public channels" like never before. There should be police-run email lists, push-technology-capable and passive web servers, pager notification networks; and common analog radio networks established to communicate directly with citizens and private security.

Currently it is not unusual to find any one or any combination of these components being utilized by police today. However, they are sporadically funded, under-promoted, and lacking in serious organization. What differentiates any current example from the futuristic paradigm of tomorrow, is once again, philosophy, structure, and objective.

The philosophy is that all incidents of crisis, whether they be predatory, natural, or industrial, are matters of public interest and safety. As would normally be the case with simple open broadcasting, no attempt to justify informing the public is made on the basis of scope, class, relevance, or impact. Instead, any and all fractures of public tranquility are matters for the public knowledge. Therefore, any attempt, technical or not, is made to advise the public in the same way that open broadcasting might have. As agents of public safety all along, the assumption of this duty is absorbed by traditional police organizations, or even separate community organizations using public funds. It should be as natural for police to broadcast the details of a suspect flight to community-wide pager networks as it is for police to chase, apprehend, and handcuff suspects in the first place. If some electronic bit of information can be transmitted to road officers (digtial suspect pictures, video of police chases over microwave frequencies from helicopters to the ground, etc.), the same information should be in some way conveyed directly to the public as live as possible.

The structure behind this new priority would require new class ranking among the paramilitary structure of police forces. There would have to be "information officers" whose job would be to erect, maintain, and constantly improve the entirely new division known as the Criminal and Crisis Incident Notification Bureau (CCINB). The maintenance of such a bureau would be considered as vital to the effectiveness and functionality of the police force as a fleet of police cruisers. The CCINB would require new buildings, new training curriculums, new duties, and new equipment. To be sure, it would most certainly require good old-fashioned money!

Clearly the objective of the CCINB is to, perhaps surrogately, replace as much of the benefits as possible that were derived from open broadcasting point-for-point. The objectives should include improving public and officer safety, clearing hot crimes, and integrating all willing members of the public into the crime-fighting process through reporting and awareness, as well as newfound support. The CCINB will replace program-style implementations of today, with standard integration. With proper management and commitment, the CCINB will improve the fabric of society because it will unify the public with law enforcement against the common predators that society fears.

While traditional news media, which police currently struggle with today to perform these duties, is not suitable for the level and style of implementation under discussion. Of course the common news media fancies itself as The common news media is for the relaying and interpretation of history. The CCINB is for the alerting and mobilization of the public, live. The best example of a real-life CCINB is probably the National Weather Service, which currently broadcasts weather information over specially designated frequencies 24-hours a day, everyday. The police should have a similar outlet, which in completed and mastered form, is the CCINB.


To a radio scannerist, trunked transmissions are a useless stream of disorganized chatter among all the departments and county agencies using the trunked system. Simulcasting is a solution to turn select talkgroups into organized communication through a third medium on the communication chain. This "third medium" serves the public interest in that it is easy for the public to utilize, and is as wide-area in scope as the original radio communication.

This segment discusses some of the pros and cons of each simulcasting solution. It should be noted that simulcasting represents the first step towards the more proactive stage of the open broadcast argument because it requires some departmental resources to organize and maintain on an ongoing basis. It is also the first set of solutions to exist outside the realm of so-called "scanner buffs" because it is a solution for everyone. Simulcasting is probably the first look at the future of citizen bonding with live police communications! 

Simulcasting Over Conventional VHF/UHF Frequencies

The wonderful thing about using standard VHF/UHF frequencies is that inexpensive scanner radios can still receive police transmissions in all their portable glory - making the solution ideal for the most critical periods such as during natural disasters.

In fact, many agencies are forced to simulcast medical and fire broadcasts over conventional VHF/UHF frequencies because neighboring districts are unable to afford the trunking radios. Individual volunteer firefighters cannot afford the radios either, and scanner radios are, as they have always been, the best way to keep a coordinated agency effort for under one hundred bucks!

However, simulcasting over such frequencies can be a lot harder that it sounds. It takes money to maintain the repeaters and other gear used, all of which must be spent by the respective agencies in question. While there may be a compelling necessity to maintain such open lines for poorer police districts and volunteer firemen, some may initially squawk at bearing the extra expense for average citizens. As a viable solution to the solution, I see police working with local amatuer radio enthusiasts to erect and maintain these repeaters as an aspect of their public service committment.

Simulcasting Over Cable Channels

Many local communities support one or more so-called government channels on cable television. These channels are often reserved to broadcast local goverment meetings and other pertainent information directly to cableviewers countywide.

In Greensboro, North Caroloina, police transmissions are broadcast continuously over just such channels. At last report, Greensboro itself was headed towards a trunked system - but the committment to open broadcasting prior to the move suggests that officials will look to maintain the system after the transition.

The upside of simulcasting over cable television is that cable is cheap. Government channels are almost always included at the lowest cable service tier, meaning most people can afford to tune in. This wide audience can be reached inexpensively by the public safety agency because the cable provider maintains the equipment and broadcast quality elements. The public safety agency only need supply a radio which the cable company can be hooked up to. It is not unforseeable that agencies budget for one additional "public service" radio in which to use in this or a related capacity.

The downside is that cable television introduces a third party into the process that may be difficult to maintain suitable and consistent communications with. When technical difficulties occur, there may be some conflict over who is responsible for correcting them, and how soon. It is plausible that when the radio used to receive the transmissions breaks or does not operate at maximum performance, cable company personnel will not feel duty-bound to correct it. Once set up with the cable company, police officials may not care to delve into the problem either. How many times have you seen command-line prompts of electronic bulletin boards broadcast over cable, waiting for some operator to reboot the system?

Second, cable is vulnerable to poor weather conditions and natural disasters of all kinds. Hence, just when the public most needs to benefit from open broadcasting, it may not be available to them. The open broadcast philosophy suggests that the public can in some way directly benefit from knowing exactly what is going on while it is happening. A television wired for cable is not often one of the emergency supplies people keep in their storm cellars!

Finally, simulcasting over cable may be a restrictive solution in that it would be economically impossible and time-consuming to organize such broadcasts by district. As in trunking in general, an individual concerned only with what is going on in his or her immediate vicinity, will probably have to contend with activity in all district beats because public safety officials are likely to bunch all district communique into one reserved cable channel. This scanning cycle will make it difficult to derive area-specific benefits, although it may still be an excellent countywide or citywide solution.

Simulcasting Over the Internet

The issue of simulcasting over the internet has a number of intriguing points. Both the new radio technology and the emergence of a common online communications medium are evolving hand-in-hand during this explosive era of information. It isn't too hard to imagine, perhaps fantastically, that the internet solution naturally negates the problem of closed systems, plus some. What is not so fantastic is that broadcasting police calls over the internet is already being done.

Dallas Texas and Los Angeles California police are two cities that have opened up their public safety broadcasts internationally via a website dedicated to the concept at former For what was touted more as a novelty than an act of pro open broadcast activism, Policescanner was an admirable glimpse of a solution that may eventually serve as the ideal solution at some point in the near future. Policescanner proved just how easy it is for any intelligent police agency seeking to integrate the concept of open broadcasting, to put together the hardware and software on a local basis for local absorbtion. It would be possible to then include a link from their community website (which many police departments still erroneously regard as an unnecessary and consequently unhad or haphazardly implemented luxury) to the various patrolcasts channels, as well as fire and medical. Policescanner seemed to demonstrate that all you need is will, a Real Audio server, a general net server, and compelling web copy.

The downside? Fortunately the negatives are mostly horacentric. That is they are rooted in the limitations of current technology or our attitudes towards technology. In a few short years some of the problems I mention now may be hysterically irrelevant.

First, while internet use grows at a blockbusting rate, it is still considered an unorthodox information resource. Many people have never had contact with the internet, or even with the very computers that act as its gateway. In fact, a recent poll implies that half of Americans still believe the internet is some kind of "fad". And it may be, at least at the level of John Q. Average. The internet has already proven itself at the corporate level of competition as a must-have and will only continue to flourish and expand anyplace where a production-based and competitive society does. But, as a mainstream channel of information, it requires far too much active participation to enjoy. People must learn basic computer skills. They must learn to install software. They must learn to configure software. They must know how to tweak and correct errant configurations; and even after everything is working right, they must know how to search and manipulate what they are looking for. It short, it ain't TV which consists of nothing more than a power switch and a channel tuner. Therefore, to go net with your public safety transmissions is to block out the mainstream, if only for the time being.

Second, your own staff may seriously lack the technical personnel and expertise to pull it off. As I've pointed out, many public safety departments are only now waking up to the 'necessity' of something as simple as a homepage. For now, the budget allocations for net-based activities have not even begun to approach that of corporate America. And it may take an entire generation of would-be 'netcops' to move up the historically rigid file and rank through college, the academy, the fraternal "breaking in" of street work, etc., before doing anything net-based from a personnel perspective is feasible. Until then, police departments must rely on arbitrary and therefore unnerving trust with private organizations, internal officers who are cops first, web geeks second; seminar-training sessions (that convey the process but not the spirit), and anxious but perhaps suspiciously odd community members. In short, until the crucial Tech-X generation becomes fully a part of the police subculture, there is probably little understanding of what to do, or how to do it.

Still, for those looking to embark on an internet broadcast solution, the future looks bright.

Simulcasting Over AM/FM Frequencies

The really amazing part about simulcasting over common commercial radio frequencies is that, as far as police go, it used to be the rule. In fact, it was the rule for at least five years into the police radio business when metropolitan police forces used the high-end of the AM radio band. The phrase "Calling all cars..." is a direct icon of this era, and happens to serve as the inspiration for the title of this website.

Citizens in the larger cities were just as free at any time to tune into their local police as they were to tune into the Lone Ranger, or to The Shadow. It's where the mere hobby of listening to police came from and it was this era that set a general precedence that people could listen in to police if they wanted to. Intended or not, this radio link perfectly integrated each community member with the effort against crime.

It seems plausible today, particularly now that micro-broadcasting is becoming more and more popular, and that some communities are already using 1610mhz (AM) for other forms of community broadcasting, that newly digitized or trunked public safety broadcasts could be rebroadcast over AM or FM frequencies. Many would say, in fact, that this would be ideal. Most people have AM/FM radios, and broadcast stations consisting of nothing more than a route to police transmissions should not be difficult to erect and maintain.

Civilian Solutions

If you are in an area converting to a closed broadcasting public safety system, there might be things you can do to retain your listening rights, or some component of that. These ideas range from the easiest to the most difficult, and are, unfortunately, merely conceptual. Some agencies may be breaking the law tuning the public out, but unless you're a lawyer or have money to pay for one, that doesn't matter much -- it's all a matter of interpretation. Some technical solutions are effective, but they are limited and others are illegal. Still, these are starting points for more capable and wealthy people to try.

Work With Public Safety

"We're not going trunked to keep people from listening, it's just a downside of our technical upgrade. Gee, we're sure sorry about this. Shucks.".

That's the form response to scannerists who care enough to inquire why they're being shut out -- assuming you're not speaking to John of GE Ericsson (now M/A-COM), of course. It's not a misleading answer because the upgrade really is based on other advantages (many of which this writer agrees with). Who says in the course of an already-expensive upgrade that public safety has to shell out the bucks to maintain older repeater systems for scannerists? Who says they have to spend additional time and resources to come up with alternative compensations? Just the time it takes to even consider the question translates into thousands of city dollars.

Funny, it seems to you, because they seem so biased against scannerists in particular.

To explain this phenomenonal contradiction, let me explain the meaning of my current email signature which reads "Discrimination is the subtle art of treating someone fairly". I believe discriminating against people has more to do with treating them with absolute fairness than it does actively gouging them in some way. If you don't want X kind of person getting ahead, you don't refuse to hire him. You don't smear his reputation, and you don't hinder him in any way. Instead, you treat him fairly! You treat him no less differently than everyone else around him. Before long, X kind of person will whither up and die. Will dissappear. Why? Because treating someone fairly means you don't treat him better than anyone else either. And treating people better than anyone else, whether it be through social networking, access, and informal sponsorship, is the only way people get ahead in a world decidely unfair by nature.

If police treat scannerists fairly, open broadcasting will die. Police must be made aware of the public good that open broadcasting does in face of all the negative publicity. They must be made aware of its value, and must be made to support and sponsor it as they go about their upgrade operations. If they have already upgraded, they must develop the desire to retrofit their systems.

If your local agency is going to a closed system, it is vital that you make these points in a letter or phone call of concern to your community relations officer:

A passionate plea expressing your own concerns in conjunction with some of the points above, may help to sway some administrations into compensating the public in some way. To be sure, there is the reality of criminals taking advantage of open broadcasting. But digital systems in particular can be configured in some way to maintain open patrolcasting, while at the same time utilizing more secure communications for those operations where this risk is exceptional. In any event, a few petty criminals attempting to use open broadcasting to their advantage does not merit the destruction of the social contract.

Notification Networks

Notification Networks may be the natural scannerist response to closed broadcasting in areas where no other choice exists, or as merely an extension of club services for members who don't want to be tied to their scanner all the time for breaking news. In the big picture, notification networks are what I'd hope police themselves would put together in what I describe elsewhere as the "Criminal and Crisis Incident Notification Bureau".

Notification networks are based on the use of pagers and other means (such as FAX) to quickly notify participants of important crisis-oriented activity involving fire, medical, and police response in their area. Ironically enough, however, most notification networks that exist today rely on open broadcasting. It is difficult to imagine any scenario where any notification network could be of much use unless it is privy to the same police and fire calls that public safety officials hear over their own radios. Luckily, if you can persuade your local public safety agencies to maintain a public purchase policy for receive-only radios, a system whereby a few radios are purchased for the benefit of an entire network can be established.

Some notification networks that exist today appear to rely on sources "close to the action" for information input. In other words, a volunteer firefighter tips off the network that a structure fire is underway. The problem with such reliance is that it is probably a matter of time before legal issues arise from such active role participation of public safety actors in informing members of a network. After all, shouldn't the firefighter be fighting the fire? For the moment actor-participation fills the bill as a supplement to constant monitoring of the police scanner, but in the long run it's not likely to hold water. Instead, members of such networks will have to resort to relying on themselves and simple spot-it-and-call-it reporting. This leads to horrible coverage and delayed information. The quality of the network will depend on the amount of active participation, which as we all know, is a bad bet for such a niche interest.

In conjunction with a public purchase policy to have at least one public safety radio "on the network", or as a solution for areas about a block wide, notification networks can probably replace the news and information component of open broadcasting. But even so, it cannot restore the bond between community and police that is lost when the constant flow of live police communication is torn from the public option.


Archive from

Draft prepared April 27, 1997
Revision 1 April 22, 1998

-- David Pinero Version

*. About
*. What is Open Broadcasting All About?
*. Don't Crooks Take Advantage of Open Broadcasting?
*. Aren't Radio Scanner Activists Already Fighting this Fight?
*. Won't Uniden's New 'TrunkTracker' Solve the Problem?
*. Isn't Closed Broadcasting Justified to Save Even One Case?
*. What is Meant By 'Dependence on Organized Media'?
*. What are the Solutions Open Broadcasting Proposes?
*. Resources



Police and other public safety departments generally use radios that are interceptable by common radio scanners. The radio scanners are inexpensive retail appliances that can be purchased at places like Radio Shack. For very little money, ordinary people can buy a scanner radio and tune in to local public safety transmissions. The information contained in these transmissions can be useful in keeping people informed of criminal activity in their neighborhood, avoiding crisis spots, and in rare instances this information can empower citizens to participate in the crime fighting or rescue process through reporting and awareness. Many people who enjoy listening to raw public safety transmissions will also tell you that they enjoy being able to hear news first-hand as it happens, without the political clutter or filtering of organized media.

The concern is that the new radio technology that public safety departments are switching to are not easily absorbed using the same inexpensive radio scanners. Many old-school public safety officials are not ashamed to tell you that they are happy that citizens can no longer overhear their transmissions so easily. Citing exaggerated security concerns, many public safety officials will turn to 'closed' radio systems, successfully evading public scrutiny of their work, isolating the public from meaningful awareness of local criminal activity, and finally, imposing mandatory dependence on organized media outlets.


Radio scanning has always been a popular hobby. Generally speaking it has been closely affiliated with ham radio, shortwave DXing (the hobby of intercepting long-range radio broadcasts), volunteer fire fighting, etc. Not since the 1970s, when Uniden Bearcat ran several television spots attempting to sell scanner radios on the informational angle, has much been done to promote the use of radio scanners to the mainstream public. Hence, the 'hobby' product remained a niche interest and was easily overtaken in concept by negative media attention, particularly through the Cocaine 80s, when drug dealers found them handy to keep one step ahead of the police who unwisely used generic frequencies to discuss just about anything. The contracted interest, except by die-hard hobbyists, criminals, and the media who reported on them, left many people believing that radio scanners were abstract tools of evil.

Furthermore, the communications boom of the later 80s involving cellular telephones merged the concept of privacy and the open airwaves, and further called into question the one tool that exploited this marriage: radio scanners. Because it was cheaper to negatize radio scanners than to modify or improve electronic communication security, the cellular phone companies played a large role in negatizing the radio scanner image, and even successfully lobbied to outlaw the manufacture of scanners in ways so that they could not receive certain frequencies (this would be the same thing as making cars that automatically shut off at 65 in order to enforce the speed limits). No one but geeks had radio scanners, yet everyone who counted had cell phones. Therefore when the closed radio systems now being implemented by public safety officials began to appear, it was all too easy to convince everyone that CLOSED broadcasting was a good thing because no one really used radio scanners, and the perception of those who did was negative.

Public safety officials did not discuss the fact that they would be subject to less public scrutiny, nor did they discuss the increased isolationism they would promote between themselves and the community at large. Nor did they discuss the politics they could play with the media in regards to access to their transmissions. Most law enforcement officers, for example, hate the fact that a video camera was trained on the group of officers that beat a black man in Los Angeles, and many officers probably feel the same way about radio scanners as they do about that video camera.


To some degree, yes. Avid radio scannerists advocate the freedom to absorb whatever radio waves are passing through their house, and oppose any restriction on the attempt to gather these waves and electronically decode them. They also fight to keep the tools of interception free from regulations. The problem, in fact, has been that the scanner purist has been somewhat successful in his plight, which is one reason why many agencies have sought tougher technological solutions. Oddly enough, scannerists often justify their position by pointing out that it is the failure of radio manufacturers to spend sufficient research funds to thwart them (see the issue of cell phone companies versus scannerists later in the FAQ), and that laws should burden the manufacturers...not the scannerist. Well, radio manufacturers HAVE researched and spent their way to a solution.

As a result, the focus on radio scanners is too tight and does not address the larger issue. That issue has to do with the fact that it is becoming increasingly cheaper and easier to use trunked or digital radio systems. If the battle for open broadcasting were restricted to the battle to keep radio scanners, in 20 years those fighting for scanners would have them--but have nothing left to listen to. The movement to persuade public safety agencies to keep some parts of their radio communications public is an attempt to solve the more basic problem of genuine information distribution and absorption, and the recognition that this absorption is good for the overall public spirit...if only to prevent the perpetuation of the image that police are 'secret' state agents. The reason that the issue of open broadcasting is still pertinent to radio scannerists at all is simply because radio scannerists were among the first people to realize and utilize this benefit. Most radio scannerists will tell you that there is a powerful sense of positive bonding to local police when they can turn on a switch and become one with the action. Hence, radio scannerists remain a large part of this movement to some degree, even though some may resent the compromising solutions open broadcasting represents.


If you've read the segment on why police scannerists are not the ultimate salvation to the closed broadcasting problem, then you understand why Uniden's TrunkTracker is only a temporary albeit significant solution. The TrunkTracker still relies on chasing and submitting to broadcasts rather than the other way around. If public safety still resents being monitored, it is only a matter of time before they thwart the TrunkTracker.

In fact, as of this writing, the TrunkTracker cannot decipher digital broadcasts, nor can it follow the transmissions of the more complex GE Ericsson (now M/A-COM) system. It is not unforeseeable that GE Ericsson (now M/A-COM) could turn this into a selling point to propagate more of its scanner-hostile systems, while both Motorola and Ericsson (now M/A-COM) could wind up selling to digital systems.

In the long run, the only solution will only ever really come from the administration offices of public safety officials who must value and implement some form of open broadcasting compensation.


It is the weight of one handful of crooks with radio scanners that public safety officials base the merits of closed broadcasting after 60 years of completely open broadcasting--the early part of which was done freely at the high end of the common AM radio band.

Open broadcasting was tolerated to such an extent at that time because police work which was conducted at the turn of the century centered around peacekeeping and the maintenance of public order. Expecting police to bust stiff crime rings and become involved in covert security operations is a relatively NEW aspect of police work. At about the time radios became available to the street officer in a patrol car, it was still common to depend on private investigation firms and other forms of hired security to deal with the more organized criminal. Gradually, through the civil disturbances of the 60s, and the romanticizing of public crime fighting organizations such as the FBI, local police became more and more involved in the 'covert' approach to dealing with criminals. Not just because they were eager to dump their image as drunk-tank supervisors, and to play like the big guys, but simply because crimes and the impact of crimes became more complex and demanded a more unified state approach if not more state responsibility.

Nonetheless, street officers, even though today they are completely integrated with the fight against higher forms of criminal organization, are still mainly concerned with opportunists, crimes of passion, and crimes against peace and order. In other words, crimes in which covert communication is completely unjustified in light of their relatively DISORGANIZED clientele. Police officers riding in patrol cars are concerned with the quality of the community fabric, not the Miami-Vice imagery of the underworld. It is a mistake to give up the benefits of open broadcasting under the blanket assumption that booking a drunk is a highly classified security operation.

Fortunately, the SAME closed radio systems which public safety officials are turning to are sophisticated enough to allow *selective encryption*. That is, the higher echelon of local law enforcement may do what it does with all the security that it desires, while at the same time allowing the basic patrol operations of street-level policing to be broadcast openly for the public good. The open broadcasting argument has no problem in selective encryption, even of entire public safety channels. It would be a sufficient gain simply to PATROLCAST. That is, to open up only the broadcast frequencies of police officers who move from one spontaneous call for service by the citizenry to another.

In any event, there is more evidence that public safety enjoys tuning the public out for the sake of tuning the public out, than they appreciate preserving the integrity of its caseloads, period. After all, there are some agencies that go so far as to mysteriously encrypt FIRE and MEDICAL transmissions as well, a certainly pointless effort and expense for the sake of any conceivable security operation whatsoever. This demonstrates that erecting a closed system is more about simply putting it together first, and justifying it needed.


Because public safety officials generally face stiff legal opposition if they don't, they generally provide receivable public safety radios to members of the 'organized media'. This creates an alliance between state government and corporate media which the individual finds himself at the mercy of. Remember, individual citizens will not have unconditional access to the radios, which means they must allocate the time and resources necessary to retrieve the commonly available 'public records' if they want access to the same information. Because this is difficult to do, people are more likely to give up and depend entirely on what the 6:00 o' clock news anchor, or newspaper, tells them is fact.

The definition of 'organized media' is arbitrary at best and is potentially influenced by the current political climate. For example, a very conservative police department may not agree to provide a police radio to a very liberal weekly magazine citing any number of conveniently concocted excuses. Without a radio, the liberal magazine cannot keep abreast of news tips as well as its conservative competitor, and may eventually be competed out of business. Even this author's website CALLING ALL CITIZENS is a valid media presence, although it would be up to local officials to decide whether or not it would be entitled to a police radio.


There are so many technical solutions to keep broadcasts open that it would be impossible to cover each and every one here. The real solution is basically the attitude of public safety officials who can then turn around and make use of any number of technical modes.

Still, I myself and others have proposed many obvious ideas. Most of them involve some sort of simulcasting. It is worth any administrator's time to visit this site to get a grip on the open broadcasting philosophy and its proposals. Simulcasting is virtually ideal, but it requires financial commitment from the public service agencies involved, and ongoing maintenance efforts.

Another solution strand involves equal access to the same receive-only radio equipment that police give members of the organized media or crime watch groups. While this may be the effective economic filter that actually reflects negative public safety attitude towards open broadcasting, it is probably the best compromise police can make with the public today because it involves no financial commitment on the part of public safety. Citizens pay for their own radios, which the agencies then agree to program. A "public purchase policy" is a significant crack in the trend towards closed broadcasting if agencies agree that receive-only police radios can be purchased by anyone in the public. The cost of owning the radios may eventually drop, and in any event, entire civilian-run notification networks can be built up around a handful of such radios.

Generally speaking it is easy to convince local agencies to sell police radios to everyone since their willingness to sell to local media outlets demonstrates how comfortable they are with the process in the first place. What may be harder is convincing them to promote the radios, and to support guidelines that make purchasing radios easy and effective. It is not impossible for local officials to agree to sell radios to the public, yet still harbor very negative feelings about open broadcasting in general.

Open Broadcasting Newsgroup Debate

The following are actual usenet newsgroup transcripts of open broadcasting debate past.

Posted May 22, 1997

On Wed, 21 May 1997 20:51:29 -0700, [email protected](Bill) wrote:

This is mostly a tempest in a tea-pot. Police agencies are going to digital communications because they can get more active frequencies out of the same bandwidth. It is all about maxing your RF allocation. It is NOT

Your point is well-acknowledged in the open broadcasting dialog. In fact I spend a lot of time telling people that police do NOT go to digital or trunked systems just to thwart scannerists (it was a local Ericsson (now M/A-COM) administrator who seemed to believe this BTW, not me). But it is beside the point. It -does- inhibit casual public scanning and police do not value open broadcasting enough to compensate in some way. That plight for compensation is the objective. Here in Hillsborough County the solution adopted was simple: sell receive-only police portables to the public.

The open broadcasting movement seeks to change the attitude of police administrators. Candidly police DO enjoy knowing they are frustrating the public even if it's not the primary goal of going digital. Time and time again police are quoted in newspapers as saying that their new communications system will "make it hard to scan". Although increasing security is not the objective of going digital, it is valued and in fact, is a selling point of digital systems.

The question is not about secrecy and separation from the public, although, as the saying go, "it's in there"'s about changing attitudes. What I am trying to do is get the police to acknowledge the value of open broadcasting, and then take the initiative in making sure police openly broadcast their patrolcasts. Whether they do this through public-purchase policies as in Hillsborough or Seattle, over the Internet as they do in Dallas, or as they do over cable TV as they do in Greensboro...what's important is that they DO it. Ideally, police should go door-to-door issuing receive-only police radios to the public. I don't think that's feasible, but it illustrates the point.

>about hiding from the public. MDTs and KDTs have provided digital >computer communications between PSAPs and units for years without this hue >and cry about not seeing what was on the MDT. And believe me some of the >best stuff is on the MDTs. :-)


>In a few years there will be radios on the market that will receive the >digital signal and all of the scanner buffs can go back to listening. Now

I don't agree with this. The digital systems will get better and better and I DO believe those encryption keys will become the norm. Unless police value the public listening in on their transmissions from the get-go, I don't believe there will be any legal compensation for the public.

One of the biggest misconceptions about the open broadcasting issue is that it is about police scanners. Open broadcasting is NOT about police scanners. Police scanners have very little to do with the open broadcasting issue. The only reason police scanners enter the conversation at all is because up until now they were the most efficient and cost-effective tools for taking advantage of open broadcasting. Also, scannerists are aware of the personal media value scanners afford. But the new radio systems will demand proactive measures to broadcast transmissions, which can only be done if police adopt a positive attitude as they now claim to in Hillsborough County.

>if agencies were talking about encoding the digital signal that might be >something to complain about but just getting new technology? Sheesh, get >a life.

I get this "get a life" phrase a lot. People have to understand that appreciating open broadcasting in no way implies that its an entertainment fantasy-cop thing. It is for some, but being a cop is fun for some cops. No, it's a *media* issue. If the government came in and took away people's TV sets, or made TV signals only useable for inter-government work, people would be outraged. Television is an integrated media service for most people. Open broadcasting is the same thing but at a deeper level.

*You* don't use, say, police scanners, because you were never exposed to their value and thus you have no concept of just how powerful they can be in keeping you abreast of criminal activity in your neighborhood or how they can empower you. Thusly, you squint and smirk when they are neutralized and some people who DO recognize that value complain. And that is the tragedy of police scanning. They were never EXPLOITED as tools of empowerment and people are suspicious of them, of the people that use them, and of the emotional well-being and integrity of people that use them. But it's incorrect and I'm glad to be among the voices of those trying to set the record straight. Had you been exposed to the police scanner when you were in kindergarten, had been allowed to play with one, allowed to take one home to your family for them to use, you'd feel a lot differently. :) This entire issue of exploitation is addressed in the FAQ if you wish to see it.


Posted May 22, 1997

On Thu, 22 May 1997 00:38:06 GMT, ***[email protected] (Kevin Murphy)wrote:

Would that apply to military transmissions, too? You pay for those frequencies. Does the general public have the right to hear departure times of ships and brigades?

State security and community security are two different things. State security is enhanced by secrecy. Community security at the police beat level is enhanced by communication and total integration. Military security is an arm of national security and answers to the state. Police security is an arm of community security and answers to to civilian citizens. And you're right: Police departments thinking like the CIA is a big problem and one I protest. Community policing (which BTW I don't necessarily agree with on all points as implemented either) is an example of how police are waking up to this realization. Although I have reservations about the community policing approach, I do see open broadcasting as an enhancing component of community policing.


Posted May 22, 1997

On Thu, 22 May 1997 14:09:00 GMT, [email protected] (SteveFurbish) wrote:

This is true, but criminal use of those broadcasts has only become a problem since the invention of those small programmable scanning devices. There are NEW issues which you seem to feel comfortable just glossing over...

Steve, I post to these groups knowing full well that I'm enticing controversy. I am making an effort to address every single opposing viewpoint that others are kind enough to take the time and challenge me with. Some of these opposing viewpoints cannot be overcome because they are valid. In these notably rare cases I can only reiterate that the value is better than the cost. Hopefully I'm glossing over nothing, but if you see something I have not addressed here, please detail it. How, exactly, does the invention of "those small programmable scanning devices" make open broadcasting any less safer than it always has been, or any less beneficial than it always has been? You may very well have some new insight that I would like to see integrated with my position.

supposed to be responsible for what goes out for the general public. I don't have a problem with routine business being conducted over a general broadcast frequency, but I do have a problem with some scanner-jockey wanting to be the one who decides what stuff goes where. Luckily, scanner jockeys will not decide which stuff goes there. The only exception will be in cases where the scanner jockey in question also happens to be a key police administrator (and I believe I have one or two of those on my e-mail list).

Look, there will always be opinionated scannerists such as myself, but WE will never, ever, make the final decisions AS mere scanner jockeys. Here in Hillsborough County I plead my case in the media, on the internet, and with a few key officials via regular mail. After hearing me out, it was the command staff of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's office, with final consideration by Sheriff Cal Henderson, that made the decision to preserve public access to basic patrolcasts. Not me. If you are curious as the credentials of the HCSO and the Sheriff himself, you are free to check out their website where all of this is detailed. Check it out at

I also doubt that scannerists were allowed to decide the policy for Seattle's program, or Dallas's decision to broadcast police calls over the internet. The same for Los Angeles police, and Greensboro police. To be sure, I would never feel comfortable making public safety decisions. I have a handful of classes in criminology from my college days, but these hardly qualify me to control such critical policies. As a scannerist I can preach the merits and benefits of scanning, but that's as far as it goes. Some police departments may appreciate my unique insight, others may not. After all, if your police decided to promote some form of open broadcasting, would you NOT want the input of scanner jockeys involved? Sure you would! These guys have been listening forever. They know exactly what makes open broadcasting so valuable, and they can provide useful insight as to the dangers of it as well. If I were police chief, I'd sure as hell make sure a scannerist were on the board at least. :)

Truth be known, I would be just as uncomfortable having a scanner jockey decide this issue, just as much as I would some Joe Doe off the street. No matter how I feel, or how you feel, it will come down to the people in charge to decide for themselves. Here and in other places, that decision benefits open broadcasting.


Posted May 21, 1997

On Wed, 21 May 1997 20:20:13 GMT, [email protected] (The BigKahuna) wrote:

I don't have a problem with the public hearing routine calls. But for tactical situations & sensitive investigations the has to be some confidentiality.

Having a hostage killed as in the situation I described does no good I cam see. Thats why some, but not all, frequencies need to be private.

Absolutely, and digital systems give police agencies the latitude to create entirely new realms of secure communication groups. In fact, for all my advocacy for open broadcasting there are things that are openly broadcasted today that I feel should not be. Specifically, response to alarm calls (more and more being handled by MDTs), tactical operations (as in your hostage situations), and surveillance operations.

My argument is delicate. I do not believe basic patrolcasts should be closed. Citizens should be able to know about accidents, police pursuits, calls of suspicious activity, disorderly conduct, and other incidents that are innocuously referred to as "random calls for service" by the public, until a situation becomes more. At some point these calls may turn into more critical events, and appropriate secure channels can be used. When you get right down to it, it's not that much different than the way things are done now.


Posted May 21, 1997

On Tue, 20 May 1997 23:37:25 -0700, JESSE MUSTOE wrote:

Well i just went on a police ride along the other day and the only thing i did not go on was a alarm that had gone off at a store at about 3 in the morning, for good reasons and if the police want to go "undercover" and all you people that think they are up no no good then stop breaking laws and you have no problems... any yes i have heard an as.h.le on the radio that thought he would be funny and play music over the air..

Actually I am perhaps, an OVERLY law-abiding citizen and am very concerned about the demise of open broadcasting. This thread has been an excellent query into the possibility of police-mystification and state separation from the public. But there are other arguments to cover which is why I and others are now attempting to make an intellectual movement out of it.

These include the utility argument that suggests exploited open broadcasting enhances public safety (most open broadcasting is NOT exploited BTW, except perhaps negatively); increases a sense of bonding to the police in this era of "community policing"; and that open broadcasting may dramatically increase officer safety. Police are oftentimes very instrumental in preventing crime as much as they are at confronting and apprehending criminals. Open broadcasting may help them to do the former even better, perhaps raising their crime-prevention effectiveness to the superior level of high-end private security.

Though you may be less inclined to see virtue in any of these arguments anymore than you do in the argument that open broadcasting encourages an open democracy, they are other argument fronts. Don't be bogged down by this single point alone. There are countless other things to disagree with here. :)


Posted May 20, 1997

On Tue, 20 May 1997 19:08:32 GMT, [email protected] (Nightbreaker) wrote:

This is ridiculous. As a 911 dispatcher for over 10 years now, I have seen more abuse by idiots with a scanner running out in the middle

There are a lot of varying attitudes about whether or not the public should be allowed to listen in on police calls. Your opinion represents that of many others. Still, there are police agencies that feel the exact opposite, especially in this era of so-called community policing. Dallas, Texas, and Hillsborough County, Florida, are just two such areas that have acknowledged the value of open broadcasting.

To spell it out, the other side of the coin has to do with community bonding and the prevention of secrecy which is considered an active ingredient in corruption. We do not have "secret" police in this country and technical implementations that encourage secrecy should be examined very closely. Also it is not "ridiculous" at all. Open broadcasting has been the rule for nearly 60 years of police radio.

The open broadcasting issue does not claim that all communications should be openly broadcast. There is a basic and recurrent reference to patrolcasts which empower the community to remain aware of criminal activity in its own neighborhood via the communication of its own commissioned local police agency. A force centered on the people, not the selfish agenda of that force itself, or the state.

Every day I step out that door, my personal safety is in some way jeopardized by open broadcasting. It may kill me because of some criminal using a police scanner. It may kill several officers who have sworn to take that risk when they signed up. But the social benefits of open broadcasting ARE overwhelming and there have been at least two cases here in Tampa where the fact that the police openly broadcasted, officers lives have been saved. To date there has been no reported loss of life due to the advantage of open broadcasting whatsoever. Nonetheless, I will not opt to argue that problems do not arise because of it. After all, criminal use of, say, police scanners, is often too integrated to single out. I will only argue that the value of open broadcasting far outweighs the cost of closed broadcasting.

of something or leading police on wild goose chases. As an active scanner buff, I will miss listening to our local and state police when they go digital, but I certainly will sacrifice the listening pleasure

You won't miss it. As a member of the police force, civilian or sworn, your chances of obtaining a radio are far greater than the average citizen with no affiliation to the police, local government, or the media whatsoever. That is my entire point, sir. You will be informationally empowered while the surfs around you will not. :)

for the knowledge that the criminals wont be listening to the scanner and learning the daily procedures of the police. Trust Me, the amount

The daily procedures of the police are not exactly top secret. Any high-grade security company is well aware of them. Any soldier going through military boot camp learns them plus some. In fact, if you scour the internet hard enough you will even find the text from Central Intelligence Agency manuals. Procedures are not secret. If they were, I'd move out of the country. The organization and implementation of those procedures takes resources and discipline that often go way beyond the ability of common criminals--and that, really, is the only "secret" of successfully applying procedures anyway. Again, we are only talking about patrolcasts...not tactical or surveillance operations.

of good done by citizens with scanners is overshadowed by the amount of problems they cause.

Many of your arguments are addressed at the Calling All Citizens website (see sig).


E-Mailers Reflect on Cablecasting Success

From Collins Conover

Hi Dave!

In Greensboro, NC a few of the police channels are broadcasted over a government access channel on our cable. When scheduled programs are not being viewed the channel is a bulletin board with the police communications as the audio. The city implemented this system, after the success of Winston-Salem's program, to make the public aware of the work that is being done around the clock for the city of Greensboro. It is a program that is designed to raise public awareness, and show the public what the Police are doing to protect our city. The police radio communications are not trunked *yet*, but they will be in the near future. I think that it is a wonderful idea that has proved the listening of police communications by the public can be constructive to the community. I enjoy listening to the television although I do have my scanner here to listen to.

From SW Taylor

After reading your letter I found myself in total agreement.

I couldn't help but wonder if a simulcast of the patrol cast on one of those vacant cable channels "sound only" wouldn't encourage more folks into supporting or "cheerleading" their local police. Keep up the great work!

Relevant Open Broadcasting Links

The links are included on this list because of their superior presentation, exclusiveness of information, or their undeniable influence on the matter of Open Broadcasting.

Remarkable Examples

Cities and other regional governments are going online in record numbers. This index includes stellar examples of what local governments and police agencies can do when they let the compu-whizzes loose at the keyboards. These sites pioneer the integrated society and promote the idea I have of stitching people into the fabric of public safety.

Reviewed Sites, Highly Recommended

Some sites struck me as so amazing, rich, and unique, that I have to give them the CAC Award of Excellence. To put creative and meaningful work into a website is what makes a site stand out. If you come into contact with this website, these are the others you should check out as well.

Glossary of Open Broadcasting Terms and Concepts

Criminal and Crisis Incident Notification Bureau - A public safety or city department constructed and engineered to rapidly convey live information to the public using dedicated TV channels, AM/FM radio frequencies, specialized UHF/VHF frequencies, pagers, fax machines, email, internet sites, etc. The purpose is to deter crime, raise public awareness through a technological window to live police action, increase public officer safety, increase civilian safety, and to integrate the community with the ongoing processes of local police work. A good example of something similar to this is provided by the National Weather Service which broadcasts updated weather information 24 hours a day, everyday, on a special series of VHF radio frequencies.

Open Broadcasting - The unencrypted and easily interceptable broadcasting of radio communique signals by public service agencies. Standard broadcasting protocol by public agencies for the last 60 years. Heralded as the best and cheapest way to allow citizens to "tune in" to police and fire work using inexpensive radio scanners.

Proactive Broadcasting - A specific agency strategy to broadcast citizen-oriented public safety information on-the-fly regarding live emergency incidents using any number of techniques. A police siren is the most basic form of proactive broadcasting while the most complex may involve the construction and practical implementation of a "Criminal and Crisis Incident Notification Bureau".

Public Witness Tools - Refers to live police transmissions, video cameras, easy access to police reports, sidewalk witnessing, etc.. A cynical perception would predict that we will increasingly face laws and regulations that hamper the implementation of Public Witness Tools that criticize or scrutinize police negatively. Open broadcasting advocates the use of Public Witness Tools by the public, media, and police, and regards any regulation against them suspiciously. A worst-day scenario will be when one privately videotapes an active police scene and is arrested as a result. Positive police agencies encourage public use of police scanners and welcome videotapers to secured crime scenes, or spontaneous videotaping of police at work. The LA riots were prompted in large part by the initial power of a Public Witness Tool. However, many police encounters are cleared in corruption accusations by them as well, a reality reflected by the police adoption of Dash-Cams or 'Badge-Cams'. These are effectively "official" witness tools. Public Witness Tools offer the best opportunity to know the truth in any confrontation. How we react to that potential varies widely.