Chicago's police-scanner fans tune in to citywide drama

  • Justin Jackson, 23, of Harvey, Ill., is a full-time firefighter and part-time photographer with a fascination with local law enforcement scanners. (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye)
Justin Jackson, 23, of Harvey, Ill., is a full-time firefighter and part-time…
January 24, 2014|By Rachel Cromidas, @rachelcromidas | RedEye

"Person shot."

For anyone in the habit of listening to the Chicago Police Department's scanner radio transmissions, those two words break through the cacophony of addresses, numbers and codes that police officers and their dispatchers rattle off at all hours.

On a recent weekday evening, they were the words that sent Justin Jackson to the corner of 95th Street and Princeton Avenue. A man had been shot in the leg, police officers said over the scanner, and he had just run into a Roseland barber shop looking for help.

Jackson, 23, of Harvey, Ill., is an on-call firefighter and part-time photographer with a fascination with local law enforcement scanners that he can trace back to middle school. He spends his free time driving around the city and the south suburbs, listening in on several radios and his cellphone for shootings, fires and car crashes, then heads to the scenes hoping to photograph some of the mayhem.

"When you listen to the radios, there are times when police and fire are just talking and talking," Jackson said, "but that split second when you hear the dispatcher come on and say a call of shots fired and a person's shot, it can go from very boring to your adrenaline pumping."

Jackson is one of an unknown number of scanner enthusiasts--dubbed "scanner nerds" by some--who obsessively listen to the cackle of the CPD's radio transmissions, which are broadcast citywide and separated into 13 zones, as well as other local first-responder radio activity. Some stay up late into the night tweeting the most alarming, interesting, or ironic tidbits they overhear, via popular twitter accounts like the unofficial @Chicago_Scanner. Others, like the authors of the anonymous local community blog "Crime in Boystown," keep a running unofficial tally of criminal activity in their neighborhoods.

And a few people, who typically moonlight as freelance photojournalists like Jackson, follow the scanner's leads straight to crime scenes.

"Some districts I go to, the police know me by name," said Jackson, as he crouched on a traffic island in the middle of 95th Street, snapping photos of the shooting victim being loaded into an ambulance. "Some districts where they don't know me, they go, `Who the hell are you? Get out of here!' "

With the right tools--namely a radio, a computer or one of the growing number of cellphone apps--anyone can access most types of police scanner activity, which is transmitted over public airwaves. But the advent of Twitter accounts that share scanner activity in real time has raised public safety questions among law enforcement officials. In the wake of the bombings at the Boston Marathon last year, the Boston Police Department took to Twitter to implore users to stop tweeting about police operations being broadcast over the scanners, for fear that criminals could use the real-time information to evade them.

CPD spokesman Adam Collins said the department has no problem with people listening in. "People throughout the country, and presumably the world, have made a hobby of listening to radio activity on police scanners for decades. As long as they don't interfere with police work, we have no issue with it," he said in an email.

In recent years some police and fire departments have moved to encrypt some of their broadcasts, including a handful of departments in the Chicago suburbs.

Vernon Herron, a retired police commander and current senior policy analyst at the University of Maryland, said public police scanners have the potential to do both good and harm, as long as listeners remember that the words they are hearing represent real, ongoing police activity, and have yet to be officially verified

"Police scanners provide citizens with a realistic idea of what goes on in the daily lives of police work," he said. "But also, criminal cases come to mind where criminals have used these portable scanners when committing robberies or other crimes, where they hear the police are responding and they make good their escape."

The Chicago area has one of the most robust scanner clubs in the country, the Chicago Area Radio Monitoring Association, with more than 1,800 email list subscribers, according to Dave Weaver, a longtime scanner enthusiast and the founder of the local scanner website Radioman911.com. Weaver's site has more than 1,000 members.

Weaver noted that scanner hobbyists are mostly male, and many, including him, describe getting into the scanners through a family member who worked in public service.

Jackson obtained his first scanner in seventh grade with the help of his father, who shot photographs for the Chicago Sun-Times. Jackson frequently sends his crime scene photos to local news outlets, and some have been purchased by the Tribune Company, which owns RedEye.

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