It used to be a staple of the newsroom – the clunky, oversized piece of equipment that provided the background noise that somehow became like soothing music over time.
And if you were at the job long enough, one could actually develop the skill of listening to the police scanner without actually listening to it – picking up on keywords, phrases, tones, and other little telltale signs while carrying on a completely separate conversation with a coworker.
I’ll never forget the time that my editor Dennis Wyatt ran out of his office and told us to go to a specific address because of something he heard on the scanner – the exact same scanner I was sitting beside at the time. Dennis, in his office, around a corner from where I was, managed to pick up what he needed to hear – a skill that had been honed over many, many years of listening to the scanner.
But those days are long gone.
Even if the console unit that used to sit on the top of an old filing cabinet still worked, it wouldn’t pick up very much after the Manteca Police Department decided years ago to encode their communications. Officer safety, I believe, was the reason, but for those of us who listened and monitored what was happening in the community, it meant the days of chasing down leads were over.
I’m not really well-versed enough to say that the reason behind the decision to encode the frequencies wasn’t justified, but I do know that much larger cities in Northern California, with much higher crime rates than ours, broadcast all of their communications openly. With that said, it used to be that either I had to be at the huge console to listen to the calls as they came in – or with a coworker that had sprung for the pricey handheld scanner – and now all it takes is a smartphone. There have been plenty of news reports over the years where the perpetrators of violent crimes – sometimes against the police – were found to have been monitoring police radio traffic to help them stay ahead of the response, and it’s hard to argue with that logic – somebody that can hear about when officers are pulling up, and where they are positioned, has an advantage of the brave men and women who are tasked with protecting the rest of us.
But as technologies have evolved that now allow us to listen to police and emergency radio traffic with the computers that we now carry around in our pockets, so too has the technology that police and emergency personnel use to communicate. Sensitive traffic has for a long time been encrypted on tactical channels – undercover operations aren’t really effective if the person inside of the house being observed can listen to what is being said about the address – and all that an officer would have to do to prevent from being listened to would be move the communication to a tactical channel.
What is the point of all of this, you may be asking yourself at this point.
For several years now, Manteca resident Joe Molina – also known on social media as Joe Snow – has been trying, unsuccessfully, to get the Manteca Police Department to go back to opening up their basic communications to the public. As a scanner hobbyist, Molina – who has invested quite a bit of his own money on equipment that allows him to monitor what is going in his own community – enjoys keeping tabs on things and sharing that information with the public as it becomes available.
He likes it so much, in fact, that he manages an entire group of people that still tirelessly listen to local emergency radio calls – which means fire calls, these days – and shares that information as it becomes available. The result is often data that is raw and without context, and anybody who has listened to a scanner feed long enough knows that calls that turn out to be nothing sometimes start off as earth-shattering and urgent. But it’s information nonetheless, and a lot of times it’s information that I come across long before the press release of the incident ends up in my inbox the following day. Even though the days of listening to police seem to be over, major incidents typically draw a multi-agency response, and therefore can be picked up by Molina and his crew.
Not all heroes wear capes – sometimes they listen to radios on their spare time.
Their hobby may seem strange to some, and it’s more than likely a thorn in the side of first responders who would rather people not try and keep tabs on everything that they’re doing, but there’s a lot of honor in the selfless service that Molina provides his community with absolutely no compensation and little recognition coming as a result of his dedication. Just today I found out that there was a shooting at Deuel Vocational Institute because somebody in his group picked up the call and knowing that opened the door for me to keep tabs on something that I wouldn’t have otherwise paid attention to. It ended up being an internal prison issue involving prisoners who were attacking another inmate, but it raised a lot of red flags and it kept people informed in the moment. There’s something to be said about an informed populace.
I don’t know if Manteca’s routine radio traffic will ever been open to the public again. There is an argument to be made for protecting the safety of the officers who sacrifice so much so that we can remain safe in our homes. With that said, there is also something to be said about fostering a sense of transparency in conducting the people’s business.
No matter what happens, it makes me pine for the days that I could expect a frazzled editor, chewed-up pen cap in his mouth, to come flying out of his office and shout something that only a few people in the world can understand to a group of over-caffeinated reporters and have said exchange materialize into something you would get to read the next day.
Those days, as they say, are over.
But they were certainly fun while they lasted.
To contact reporter Jason Campbell email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 209.249.3544.