Coded police radios shut out reporters, scanner buffs, maybe criminals
By Dave Gathman email@example.com February 16, 2014 3:56PM
Listening to what the police were doing on a home scanner used to be entertainment for radio buffs and an occupational aid for news reporter and photographers. But with similar scanning ability becoming cheap and mobile with smartphone apps like "Scanner 911," Elgin police were concerned that crooks have been using them. So now Elgin cops encode their messages. | Dave Gathman/Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 18, 2014 6:12AM
ELGIN — For 15 years, Bill O’Neill has made his living by sitting in his home surrounded by four squawking radio “scanners” tuned to the broadcast frequencies used by the area’s police and firefighters.
When the police went after a bank robber, O’Neill would hear the blow-by-blow descriptions of their high-speed chase in real time. When a house started on fire, he would learn about that as soon as the firefighters did. When a school was closed down because of a gas leak, he would know about that instantly.
If the incident was newsworthy enough, O’Neill would dash into his car and race over to take photos of whatever was going on. Then he would try to sell those photos to the media, including The Courier-News.
Meanwhile, back in the newspaper, radio and TV newsrooms, editors and news directors would be doing the same thing. They might be talking about the front-page layout or interviewing a congressman. But one ear would always be cocked, waiting to detect the excited, tense voices over their radio scanners that would offer the first clue that some major incident was going on. When one did, they would send reporters and photographers speeding to the scene.
And in family rooms all over, radio hobbyists and police buffs would while away a dull afternoon by listening in via their own scanners.
But all that could be becoming a thing of the past. And so could many of the live news photos and videos shot at crime and fire scenes. About two weeks ago, the Elgin Police Department started “encrypting” the now-digital radio messages exchanged between police in the field and Elgin’s 911 dispatch center. No longer can scanners tuned to the EPD frequency hear what is being said, although messages exchanged by the Elgin Fire Department continue to go out “in clear.”
The Aurora Police Department took a similar step about two years ago.
Elgin police Cmdr. Glenn Theriault said police leaders made the change because it was becoming too easy for criminals to listen in on police communications and stay one jump ahead of the officers chasing them.
That was especially true with changing technology. Thirty years ago, someone who wanted to listen in on police channels might have to spend $200 or more on a scanner, buy special crystals for each channel they wanted to hear, and leave the bulky scanner in a house or office where it could stay plugged in.
Today, several providers sell “scanner apps” you can download to your smartphone — in some cases for free, in other cases for as little as $1.99. That smartphone just became a limited-ability scanner that you can take with you anywhere. However, not all police and fire agencies are available from each app provider, and they may not be dependably available 24 hours a day. Most app providers work by paying a local radio buff who owns something more like the old-style scanner to pass on what he hears via Internet to the smartphone-scanner company, which then rebroadcasts the signal to its subscribers.
“At one time, we were having a series of commercial burglaries up and down Randall Road,” Theriault said. “We figured out they were using police scanners. You could tell by the time they left the scene, as shown on surveillance videos. As soon as a dispatch went out over the radio, they would hit the road.
“Of course, we finally caught on to that and got them anyway.”
Seeing no problem
But Hampshire Police Chief Brian Thompson and East Dundee Police Lt. Mike Blahnik said they haven’t noticed any problem of crooks using scanners.
“I can’t say that anybody we have arrested had a scanner in their possession,” Blahnik said.
Thompson, whose forces are dispatched by Kane County Emergency Communications (KaneComm), said that “Kane County has some secondary radio channels we can go to for surveillance missions or raids or so forth. But they aren’t encrypted either, so I suppose somebody who knew the frequencies could just move over to that secondary channel with us and keep listening.”
Thompson said that years ago, Hampshire police had a device called a “scrambler” in some of their squad cars. If a sensitive issue came up, an officer could scramble the radio signal, and only other radios with a similar device could understand what was being said.
“I think scramblers went out of fashion when cellphones came in,” Thompson said. “When there was some kind of sensitive information to pass on, now the officer could just phone the station.”
O’Neill said he worked as a salesman for two-way radio systems before he became a freelance photographer. He said he used to get photos from 25 to 50 fires and crime scenes a month, posting many of them on his website, elginet.com.
“To be there and get the picture of the arrest being made — that makes the police look good, and that will become the history of the Elgin Police Department,” O’Neill said. “But all that’s gone now. After listening for 30 years, it looks like we’re being shut out of what’s going on. I have to hope that someone I know within the department will let me know when something is happening.”