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The Mostly Terrible Things I Learned by Listening to Police Scanners for Six Months

While working for a newspaper it was my job to listen in on the parade of misery that kicked off every night.

by Jackie Hong
Mar 21 2015, 12:30pm

Photo via Flickr user Paul McCord Jr.

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

She's a woman in her mid 50s or early 60s and she's about 20 stories up, standing on the edge of her apartment balcony. It's a mid-January night in Toronto so it's absolutely freezing outside but she's not wearing a coat or mittens or a hat or even socks—probably because she's not planning to be outside long enough to get hypothermia, or even frostbite.

She has stage IV cancer. I don't catch the type or when she found out but I know it's terminal. And I know that the only way she wants to get off the balcony is the one where she passes 19 floors on the way down.

This isn't happening in front of me, mind you—I'm listening to it happen in real time, but even then, I don't hear the woman or the wicked gusts of wind that are blasting through the city that night or even the voices of the police officers that are trying to calm her down.

All I have is the back-and-forth between one officer and a dispatcher as he updates her on what's happening on the scene, their crackling voices coming through the police scanner and bouncing around the small room I'm confined to for eight hours a day, two or three times a week. Since September, I've been working at a newspaper, where, among other things, I used to listen to police and paramedic scanners for breaking news. The scanners picked up radio transmissions between officers or paramedics out in the field and their dispatchers—it's long given crime reporters, tow truck companies, and hobbyists an auditory backseat ride in almost every cruiser and paramedic vehicle in the city. Of course, I got to hear police and paramedics respond to the things that made the six o'clock news or the front page—the shootings, the stabbings, the home invasions, the 20-car pileups that cripple traffic for hours—but more often than not, I heard things that news editors decided a long time ago shouldn't be broadcast or printed.

Everyone knows that things like mental health calls, bar fights, domestic violence, and suicides happen. But it isn't until you listen to them get called in, day in and day out, that you really start to understand the frequency with which they happen and what first responders have to deal with every day.

The officer with the woman on the balcony faithfully reported back to dispatch about every 30 seconds until, suddenly, the frequency went silent.

Twenty minutes later, his voice resurfaced. He was at the hospital.

"We're, uh, notifying next of kin," he said, deadpan.

Listening to the scanners taught me a lot about the city I thought I already knew everything about.

Encrypting the Chatter
But we scanner listeners are a dying breed. Peel and York Regional Police forces switched over to digital radios and encrypted their signals in 2014, meaning that for media, hobbyists, and post-crash cleaner crews, the scanners have gone silent. Both police forces cited officer safety and citizen privacy as reasons to block everyone else from listening in; York Regional Police's chief later admitted that several news programs broadcasting the final words of an officer fatally struck by a car, heard over the scanners, also contributed to York's decision. It's the latest in a growing wave of silence creeping on to the scanners—Hamilton police started encrypting in 2012; as Durham's did in 2000. Toronto police had said they would make the switch in May, but earlier this month, their frequencies went silent too.

Toronto police spokesperson Mark Pugash said the switch has been years in the making and is necessary to protect both police and public safety and to keep the sensitive information often included in transmissions private.

"Has it happened that the media got to scenes before police? Yes, absolutely, it happens with frequency," Pugash said. "If we're going to arrest someone, there's a considerable element of surprise. If there are TV broadcast vans there before we get there, there's an extremely high likelihood that the element of surprise will be lost."

"The media have been able to eavesdrop on this information because the technology didn't exist to prevent that. But this is very sensitive information," he added. "We are changing because there are dangers and risks involved in [transmissions] not being encrypted."

Cracking the Codes
You have to get used to emergency service lingo when you start listening to scanners. Male, very HBD? A guy who's shitfaced (has been drinking). The police are transporting a body? Don't get too excited, because "body" in cop-speak means a prisoner. Paramedics are transporting a patient from the scene, CTAS1? Well, better get on that because the poor bastard is treading the fine line between life and death. CTAS3? They're mostly fine. And VSA? If it's a crime-related call, that's definitely making the blotter the next day because that means the patient's heart and lungs have stopped (vital signs absent, but remember, no one's officially dead until they've been pronounced—patients can be VSA and be brought back). It wouldn't be fair to let the letters have all the fun though: 10-2s is the verbal shortcut to mean police (as in, "10-2s are on scene"), and yes, they really do say 10-4 at the end of some transmissions.

After you crack the code and can start listening without having to constantly glance at a cheat sheet to decipher the short forms, a few things start jumping out at you.

Statistics IRL
Did you know that in Toronto, there were four times more suicides than murders in 2009? The fact that suicides far outweigh murders as a cause of death isn't exactly a secret, but it's one thing to read a statistic and another to hear the sheer number of suicide attempt calls that police have to respond to every day. Editors and mental health experts have long cited fears of triggering copycat suicides to justify not reporting on them.

Another thing everyone's probably unconsciously aware of but doesn't really notice is the loose correlation between weather and crime. In general, a drop in temperatures usually equates to a drop in crime—when winter really hit Toronto and the city fell to below freezing, the radios went largely silent. The exact opposite holds true when it starts warming up.

"The hot days, you could guarantee the scanner was going to be busy," said Richard, a hobbyist who did not want his last name published and who started listening in on Toronto police transmissions in 1988. It's not just anecdotal—a 2013 study found that with temperature spikes come crime rate spikes too. "After midnight after the bars let out on a Friday or Saturday night, fights were and are still common," he added.

Most fights don't make the news. Neither do the muggings, domestic violence incidents, or thefts unless they occur under ridiculous circumstances. (I once overheard police responding to a man getting robbed of his cash, wallet, cellphone, and pants—that one made the crime blotter.)

And of course, crime seems to cluster in some areas.

It's not all doom and gloom, though—you occasionally get to hear a happy transmission, or at least one that makes you giggle. Lost kids get reunited with worried parents; the wandering elderly are brought back home. No one ever seems to swear on the radios, either, which means cops or paramedics sometimes update their dispatchers that they're leaving a scene because someone told them to "go self-fornicate." And I don't think the average citizen realizes how many times a month police officers have to chase down someone who decides to get naked and run around in the streets (hint: it's a lot).

One evening shift, I listened as paramedics sped to an address because a concerned friend had received a text message from the resident saying he needed help and stopped responding. Five minutes later, they cleared the scene. The resident had indeed needed help, but not of the medical kind—he just wanted to move his couch but couldn't do it alone. Another time, the police needed a unit to respond to a woman who had, among other things, "uncontrollable sexual urges."

As a scanner listener, you have the luxury of observing from a distance. There's a weird sort of disconnect: You know what you're hearing is playing out somewhere in the city but at the same time, it feels a little surreal.

"When you hear it on a radio, it's almost like it's not happening. It's desensitized," said Edward, another hobbyist who wanted his last name kept private, who first started playing around with scanners 25 years ago. He now runs a Twitter account, @TorontoStreets, that he occasionally uses to Tweet breaking news from.

"It's a theatre for the mind, what you're listening to. It's like a good book," he said. "I think that fact that it's live is the fascinating part of it."

First responders don't get that luxury, and it doesn't take long to see why paramedics and cops have some of the highest rates of PTSD in the population. For every emotionally unstable or violent person, there are at least two first responders who have to handle someone who's possibly a danger to themselves and to everyone around them. For every suicide attempt, there's an officer or paramedic who has to try and talk to person down. For every murder, there's an officer or paramedic who had to be first on scene and see the terrible things humans are capable of doing to each other. It takes a toll—you'd be surprised by level of exhaustion you can detect in a stranger's voice, even when it's coming through on a crackling radio.

One shift last year, the mostly quiet scanners suddenly exploded with activity. There had been a shooting out west, near a school, and then one downtown. I remember police dispatchers calmly and methodically sending units to the scenes while gathering information from officers on site. I remember officers panting heavily as they chased the suspects in the school shooting through a park, relaying descriptions and their positions back to dispatchers. I remember the dispatcher for the downtown shooting warning all officers in the area to be careful because two suspects had fled the scene. It was cacophony of voices saturated with adrenaline and authority.

But what I remember most clearly came through the paramedic scanner. An ambulance had picked up the downtown shooting victim and was rushing him to hospital. A female paramedic was reporting back to her dispatcher, and I heard something I haven't heard before or since—a paramedic yelling, her voice tinged with urgency bordering on defeat.

"One male with three shots to the chest and one to the back of the head," she relayed.

"VSA."

Three people died during my shift that day. Two of them were high school students in their teens. The third was a man in his early 20s.

I spent the rest of my day after the shift with a weird feeling that I've never quite been able to pin down.

Radio Silence
The growing encryption trend has drawn the ire of journalists and hobbyists, who argue that not only do silent scanners make it harder to find breaking news, but also give police more power on what's reported—unless someone's lucky enough to stumble upon an active crime scene, the media who report on crimes are almost completely dependent on police telling them.

I remember the last big crime call I listened to before encryption kicked in. It was another relatively slow overnight shift (some non-fatal stabbings) when Edward sent me a message on Twitter telling me to tune into the 54 and 55 Division channel.

Reports of shots fired at a McDonald's.

Then, reports of someone lying on the ground.

An officer confirms someone's on the ground and that the person is not moving. Shortly after, another person is also found on the ground, not moving. They're both pronounced dead on scene. The McDonald's is cordoned off, and then the streets around it. There's a bit of confusion as to who the shooter is or where he went, but it doesn't take too long for police to figure out it was an armed security guard who apparently fired on two men after some sort of physical fight. The guard stayed on scene and cooperates with police. All the employees are accounted for and safe.

The last crime call I heard was on March 1—a police car chase and then foot-hunt for suspects in three armed robberies. No one was hurt, thankfully, but police did cordon off a few blocks and bring in a tactical and K9 unit to try and track down the suspects. One man ended up getting arrested; four or five got away.

The radios were encrypted by the time I came in for my next shift. Toronto paramedics spokesperson Kim McKinnon told me that, for now, the service does not plan on encrypting its transmissions, so I still have paramedic chatter to keep me company in the room at work. But the paramedic scanner was never nearly as active as the police scanners, and more often than not now, I find myself sitting in silence, sometimes for hours. It's the eeriest on the overnights when the newsroom is completely empty.

The police scanners still sit on a table beside the computer desk, though. Every time I go in, I crank the volume up all the way in the hope that somewhere, some radio in some squad car was missed in the switch. So far, no luck.

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