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The Perils of Broadcasting Law Enforcement Frequencies

There’s a big audience for it. But people listening to police radio creates serious privacy challenges. They can also hamper law enforcement.

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When a gunman terrorized the Michigan State campus last February, killing three students and wounding five more on a cold winter night, students, staff and faculty scurried for shelter. Then they scrambled to find out what was happening.

Many of them turned to Broadcastify, a private app that’s been making audio streams from police, fire, EMS, aircraft and rail radio systems available to the public since 2012. Listeners at the East Lansing campus weren’t alone. At the high point of the three-hour search for the shooter, 240,000 people in East Lansing — and around the world — tuned in to follow the manhunt.

The events of that evening show the power of using the Internet to track information. But that power now worries local police so much that they want to close the door on people listening to their minute-by-minute work. That’s leading to an epic collision between the opportunities for transparency and the pressures for secrecy in ongoing police activity.

In East Lansing, the police scanners were full of a constant crackle of conversations between the 911 dispatchers and first responders. There were reports of suspicious vehicles — a stationary black pickup truck, a gray truck heedless of oncoming traffic, a different pickup truck circling the campus. One caller said that someone had fired at them from a silver SUV. There was another call reporting a bicyclist carrying a gun, according to an extensive analysis of the recordings weeks later by The New York Times.

The police didn’t know for hours where the shooter was. Students were terrified. Reports continued to flood in about a shooting at an athletic facility with multiple injuries, but in fact there wasn’t any shooting there. Then calls began arriving about explosives on campus. In the end, it turned out that there weren’t any.

When it was over, police officers discovered that the shooter had killed himself far off campus, soon after he launched the attack. But by the time they discovered his body and confirmed that he was a lone gunman, the blizzard of reports had shaken thousands of Michigan State students.

In addition to listeners who tune in during crises, the Broadcastify app has a loyal fanbase of true crime aficionados. That audience swelled during the East Lansing incident. The buzz grew to such a level that a Facebook moderator worried that all the chatter might be giving clues to the shooter about where the police were looking.

The police incident commanders were worried about exactly the same thing. “Is it possible to secure an encrypted channel?” an officer asked, hoping to prevent the shooter from listening in. The dispatcher replied that encryption would destroy the ability of officers from different departments to talk with each other.

Broadcastify came from the prolific mind of Texan Lindsay Blanton, who in 1998 founded RadioReference.com, which bills itself as “the world’s largest radio communications data management and media provider.” The company tracks nearly a quarter of a million radio frequencies and has become the home for tens of thousands of people across the globe seeking to link with each other. Blanton told CNN that “we’re providing a service to the general public to keep them aware.” Many local police departments, however, aren’t so sure.

In Chicago, for example, city officials decided in 2022 to encrypt police-started transmissions. “It's about officer safety," Mayor Lori Lightfoot contended. "If it's unencrypted and there's access, there's no way to control criminals who are also gonna get access, listen in and adjust their criminal behavior in response to the information that's being communicated.”

Members of a local media coalition pushed back. They argued that they had always worked closely with police to avoid compromising investigations. In an open letter to the public, local television stations and newspapers contended that “real-time access to police scanners promotes transparency and accountability by law enforcement.” They pointed out that a later analysis of police scanner traffic during the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting revealed that law enforcement’s response was slow and inadequate.

During the 2022 mass shooting in Highland Park, Ill., when a gunman killed seven people and injured 48 more during an Independence Day parade, Broadcastify supporters pointed out that monitoring the police scanners provided a way for people to stay safe and locate the missing. A few months later, however, after Highland Park started blocking transmissions, there was a shooting in broad daylight at a courthouse, with more than 40 shots fired before the shooters escaped on an expressway. As a result, the media coalition argued, “you did not see, hear or read about that incident as it was happening.”

In response to the pressure, the city decided to make radio traffic available to Broadcastify, but with a 30-minute delay. A proposal surfaced earlier this year that would give newspapers and broadcasters — but not the public — real-time access to the encrypted radio traffic, so they could report the news without tipping criminals to the police response. But the Chicago debate remains very much in flux.

The same argument has played out across the country. Faced with concern from the police, communities from Baltimore to Denver to Sioux Falls have encrypted their radio signals. The same is true for departments across Florida and Pennsylvania.

As the use of smartphones has exploded, Broadcastify has grown far more than even its founder could have imagined. In the process, it’s framed a genuine debate about just where to set the delicate balance between open communications with the public and sensitive operations for law enforcement.

Donald F. Kettl is professor emeritus and former dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. He is the co-author with William D. Eggers of Bridgebuilders: How Government Can Transcend Boundaries to Solve Big Problems.
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