The Perils of Broadcasting Law Enforcement Frequencies

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.

Full story: The Perils of Broadcasting Law Enforcement Frequencies

8 Replies to “The Perils of Broadcasting Law Enforcement Frequencies”

  1. This is an issue that I am very torn on. It really makes me wonder how we can have our cake and eat it too when it comes to sharing sensitive information with the public while also keeping the work of our police forces safe from compromise. Is there a true gray area that would land us between a completely open communication system and one that the public has no access to? The idea of people having access to police scanners is a good one in my opinion, when those people are civilians. The issue is when they are using the information for criminal behavior. Although the ratio of civilians using the information for safety purposes to those engaging in criminal behavior is quite a lot to just a few, it still causes an issue.

    1. I agree this is a very tough issue because criminals can use these live scanners to better determine their actions. As much as we need police transparency we also need police to have some kind of upper hand in these scenarios so they can put a stop to them. I think most of these scanner apps are mostly used for entertainment purposes but there is no way of telling how many criminals are using them to plan and carry out their crimes. On the other hand in this case many people in the community were using them keep up with the manhunt and remain safe to the best of their ability. Maybe these apps need some kind of verification system where the identity of individuals is logged who are listening to police activity. This could deter criminals from utilizing the programs while still allowing citizens to monitor police activity in their area.

    2. I agree. The thought of civilians having access to police scanners is kind of scary. I believe that the cons outweigh the good. There will always be the risk of someone or a group of people misusing that information to harm others.

  2. Having events so open to the public eye can cause a lot of conflicting problems for both law enforcement and society. Because the public has access to the information via radio systems and the media this causes unwanted opinions on how a situation should be handled. Law enforcement has certain protocols for every predicament that society is not educated on, this causes more disruption within the community and the perception they have of law enforcement. Another problem that may arise from this, is all the information falling into the wrong hands as seen in the Michigan State case. Live information can help the offender in the case of knowing the police’s next step.

    1. This is a very interesting perspective to take into consideration and one that I personally had not considered. That is the perception that people create upon hearing the information broadcasted during an incident. As you said, police have certain protocols that they are expected to follow when a certain situation presents itself. These are oftentimes not public information and they are done in a manner that keeps public safety in the forefront followed by the safety of officers. When civilians don’t understand these protocols it can be easy to form opinions that are misled. This creates an issue not only for officers trying to do their job correctly in the field but also in the aspect of trust within the community.

  3. Does the police’s concern with public insight on their communications hint toward an issue with public accountability and oversight? Whilst it could pose a security risk for the police and other emergency responders to have their scanners made public through apps, it is not illegal for the public to do so. Typically, a criminal is not going to listen to these communications during the commission of a crime, however, it does not mean that it won’t happen. Aside from criminals, the police as a whole have been pushed for more transparency and accountability over the last few years due to multiple instances of police brutality. Perhaps that whilst the government and emergency responders may not like this, it is a good thing for general relations with the public, as it serves as a two way system of trust. Regardless, both side of the argument have fair points, and there can be consequences with either perspective.

    1. I agree with your points. While it’s not illegal to listen to police scanners what are the chances the public will overreact to the news heard on the police scanners? We also have to think about how accessible police scanners can be. If I can get a police scanner, it’s more likely a criminal can get a police scanner. Criminals are getting smarter when committing crimes. I can see how allowing police scanners to be accessible to the public allows a two-way system of trust, but how far are you willing to take this trust? Trust can only go so far. The number one thing to remember is public safety.

  4. Would having a minute-by-minute way of listening to law enforcement radio traffic endanger the officers and the ongoing situation? Though it may not be illegal, and some argue that it can lead to accountability, the possible danger is there. If anyone in the public is able to listen in, this could lead to issues to do with not only officer safety by all communications being open. If, for example, there is an ongoing shooting; the shooter can listen and know where, what, and when the police are taking action in order to combat or evade. That being said, listening to radio chatter alone wouldn’t be enough to do some of these things, it adds to the risk of the situation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *