My passing adolescent dream of owning a police scanner was fulfilled recently when I learned that one may now download free software that performs the same function. Does police scanning have potential as a trendy new form of entertainment? Here follows my review of the medium itself.
The greatest problem with scanning, both in its capacity as an exciting new “found art” and as a means of monitoring potential due process violations against the citizenry, is that neither the dispatchers who relay 911 calls nor the officers who respond to them are much given to enunciating. Couple this with the relatively low audio quality of the hardware with which police departments still make do, plus the frequency with which numbered codes are used to convey important elements of the narrative, and one gets a sense of the obstacles the medium faces right from the get-go.
With production values compromised, it’s the narrative that’s left to do the heavy lifting. But much of the story line is either mundane or obscure; police are routinely called out to vague “disturbances” unencumbered with much in the way of details. This leaves listeners unengaged, while also ensuring that anyone who happens to be near the scene to which cops are responding becomes a potential suspect. This latter problem is multiplied by the two-dimensional character descriptions we receive from dispatchers. Put out a casting call for a “black male,” and you’ll have James Earl Jones and Chris Tucker showing up for the same role. Put out an APB, and you’ll certainly find someone who can stand in for the original subject—but will he be right for the part?
The police band being one of those highly avant-garde affairs with lots of audience participation that dissolves the arbitrary barrier between viewer and performer, some of the blame may be laid at the door of the citizenry. On one afternoon, a “Latin male” is reported by some local busybody for “walking barefoot around the neighborhood.” The dispatcher adds that the caller—apparently the skittish sort—also asked for the responding officer to call her before knocking on her door if they need further evidence of wrongdoing (which they don’t; a unit is sent out to investigate). On the other hand, if someone in the crowd at an improv show yells out a dumb idea for the next sketch, we must blame the professionals if they actually run with it. Ditto when someone calls into a police department—that regularly complains of lacking the resources necessary to respond to serious crimes—and offers a tip to the effect that someone is “playing loud music and possibly smoking marijuana,” and the department actually sends a unit to the scene, as happened one May afternoon.
Interspersed among reports of tacky-sounding street assaults and people passed out next to convenience stores, we are treated now and again to a truly great story arc. On the 29th of May, a conflict breaks out when an apartment manager tells a tenant whose unit came complete with complimentary bedbugs to “stop calling over here and complaining,” so the tenant obediently ceases calling and instead walks over to the leasing office with a weapon. Even more delightful, a woman who’d previously reported her license plate stolen calls in to note that she’s now found it, affixed to someone else’s car in her own apartment complex. But such highly successful narratives as these only highlight the unsatisfying lack of resolution that is inherent to the medium; except for the notifications that sometimes come across the band that a suspect is being brought in to Lew Sterrett, the results of these dispatches are left to our own imagination. I myself had all sorts of questions about what the end game was supposed to be on the license plate caper.
Thus it is that I cannot recommend the police scanner as art, or even light entertainment. Nor is it a promising tool for prompting police reform in Dallas, regardless of what one happens to catch the department doing. After all, there are already dozens of videos on YouTube of DPD officers committing assaults, threatening to arrest people for filming them, and unconstitutionally demanding identification without articulating a suspected crime, almost none of which resulted in press coverage or disciplinary action. The problem here is not one of supply.