Crime & Courts

Anchorage will end public broadcast of police, fire radio communication

The city is cutting off the public's ability to listen to Anchorage police and emergency-response radio traffic, saying the broadcasts pose a threat to officer safety and victim privacy.

After a legal review and conversations between top police and city leaders, "we have determined the negative consequences of our current practice outweigh the benefits," wrote municipal manager Michael Abbott in a letter to local media organizations Friday.

That means the Anchorage Police Department will not reinstate the broadcast of its radio traffic on the internet service Broadcastify, which had been suspended in recent months. The Anchorage Fire Department will move to encrypt its over-the-air radio communications, Abbott wrote.

Some local media outlets say they have serious concerns about transparency and newsgathering if they can't monitor police scanner traffic.

At the same time, a citizen effort to satisfy the thirst for up-to-the-minute information on local police activity seems to be flourishing.

The "Anchorage Scanner JOE" private Facebook group now has more than 30,000 members — equal to roughly one in every 10 people in Anchorage.

Deprived of scanner access for months, people have been making up to a hundred posts to the page per day — reporting stolen trucks, taking pictures of SWAT team standoffs, noting car crashes and road closures with varying degrees of specificity and accuracy and asking many versions of  "what's up with these cop cars in my neighborhood?"

"When the scanner isn't available the page kind of becomes the scanner," said volunteer page administrator Jacki Tigg Mathis.

New technology, new audience

Traditionally, media organizations have used police radio communications as a way to report on breaking news events as they unfold.  

But in recent years, online streaming broadcasts of scanner radio traffic through apps like Broadcastify have allowed anyone with a smartphone to listen in on the 24-hour-a-day chatter between police dispatchers, officers and other emergency responders as they respond to calls.

But police officials say criminals are listening, too. 

The Anchorage Police Department encrypted its own over-the-air radio communications years ago, said spokeswoman Jennifer Castro. Around 2013 the department began offering an un-encrypted stream on Broadcastify, one of the most popular streaming sites. The idea was that APD could put the stream on a time delay and yank the broadcast off the air in sensitive situations where it might reveal tactical information.

"The idea was that there needed to be a balance as far as maintaining what the public can listen in on, at the same time giving us an advantage to have more control over the scanner traffic," she said.

But not everyone in the department was happy having a large public audience — or in some cases news media —  listening in on their movements.

In one incident in 2012, scanner chatter suggested that a student had a gun in a classroom at a local high school, Castro said. A news organization tweeted about it before police even arrived on the scene, which Castro said police believed could have compromised safety.

"That was the event that really started discussions," she said.

Tensions over public scanner traffic only grew as a citizen audience flourished.  

At the beginning of 2016, Anchorage police took scanner traffic off the air after a string of armed robberies.

"We don't want the bad guys to hear what we're doing," APD spokeswoman Anita Shell said at the time.

In February, the driver of a stolen rental car was arrested. As an officer was moving the suspected stolen vehicle, he heard on the radio the time-delayed broadcast of the scanner traffic announcing he would be pulling the man over.

Castro argues that kind of encounter illustrates the vulnerability police face when anyone can tune in to hear what they're doing.

In citing officer safety as a primary reason to suspend the scanner broadcasts, Abbott, the city manager, said there had been instances when "police were fired on and there may have been information from the scanner system used in those engagements."

In the letter announcing the decision to media outlets, he wrote that the scanner had been used to "attempt to ambush officers."

Castro said she did not know details of any such cases but maintained that the open scanner feed could hinder police work.

"Criminals were using our scanner feed to their tactical advantage," she said. 

A legal review of city scanner practices also suggested that broadcasting police activity could violate state statutes that prohibit sharing the addresses or phone numbers of witnesses or victims of crimes, Abbott said.

He said he didn't know of any formal complaints or litigation against the city related to privacy concerns.

The rise of Scanner JOE

No law compels local police departments to share their internal radio communications with the public, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that pushes for open records. But such access allows news organizations to quickly report breaking news, and promotes transparency in policing, the committee argued in a 2012 statement.

Not having access to police scanners can "undercut the press's ability to report information" in a complete, accurate and timely way, the organization wrote.

Increasingly, departments are taking them off the air. Departments from Pasadena, California, to Newtown, Connecticut, have pulled their scanner traffic off the air, though major police departments, such as Chicago, continue to broadcast scanner traffic online to an audience of thousands.

Abbott said that Anchorage was the only large police department in Alaska to broadcast its scanner traffic besides Juneau.

"We're really joining the mainstream here,"  he said.

There are no immediate plans to enhance the police department's methods of disseminating information, which rely on the Nixle alert system, news releases to media and an online crime-mapping tool called RAIDS, Abbott said.

Castro, the police spokeswoman, said the Nixle system should tell citizens quickly about information the department deems to be of public concern.

But some say that system doesn't offer information as quickly as people want it to. On Monday, a Nixle release about a homeowner shot during an attempted burglary at 2 a.m. wasn't released until 12:55 p.m., nearly 11 hours later.

In the void left by the scanner, a new kind of citizen movement has flourished.

Jacki Tigg Mathis has been an administrator on the Anchorage Scanner JOE Facebook page since February 2015. Often homebound with fibromyalgia and post-traumatic stress disorder, she says posting on the site is her way of connecting with the city she has lived in for more than 40 years.

Tigg Mathis said she has spent up to 18 hours a day — on nights when she can't sleep — listening to the scanner and posting to the page.

She believes the city needs to be able to listen to what police are doing. People who use the Anchorage Scanner JOE page want to know "if it's OK for their children to go play in the park."

The thirst for information she has seen from members of the Facebook page didn't go away when the police scanner went offline.

"It's just worked its way into the community, the page has," she said.

In one recent incident, a SWAT team and police were trying to get a guy holed up in a trailer to come out, Tiggs Mathis said. People were posting pictures and updates to the audience of 30,000 as it happened. 

Unlike the scanner, it was not on a time delay.

"If there's an accident or a man running from police and they pull out the K-9s, they are going to get a live post on the page because there's no scanner to listen to," she said.