News And Politics

#ScannerOn: The 'theater' of eavesdropping on LA's law enforcement

May 31, 2012, 8:19 a.m.

A radio scanner. This is the photo the @LAScanner Twitter account uses as its profile picture. (Credit: Zuzu/Wikimedia Commons)

Note: In this article, because the person who runs the @LAScanner Twitter account did not disclose his name, "@LAScanner" is also used to refer to the person himself.

The person behind the popular @LAScanner Twitter account won't tell you much about himself, although a phone conversation confirms that he's, indeed, a "himself."

Here's what we know: He was born and raised in Los Angeles and resides "in the 323." In 1988, when he picked up a scanner for the first time, he was a teenager.

And that's about it – because that's all he'll tell us.

"Part of the fun of doing @LAScanner is the anonymity," he said. "I like that part. Part of it's the mystery and part of it is the fact that I can do it without people forming an opinion of me based off anything besides my tweets."

A scanner is a radio receiver that can pick up radio frequencies, frequencies like the ones the LAPD uses to communicate. Using a scanner he bought about eight years ago, @LAScanner tunes in to about 30 of these LAPD frequencies and listens in to the thousands of calls that come in every day.

Then he takes the best ones and tweets them out.

"SOUTH LA: 3 shots fired car-to-car Hickory & 110th Street. #wattsisalivewithlead," he tweeted on the night of May 28.

That same day: "SOUTH LA: Drunk dude @ 101st St. & Broadway rocking the old Mercedes w/ blue & yellow Calif. plates. LAPD enroute. #drunkisdrunk."

The beginning of @LAScanner

The man's marriage of relaying real-time crime and witty flair in his tweets – which cover all of L.A. County – has led to a sizable Twitter following of more than 4,700.

But @LAScanner was (legally) eavesdropping on Los Angeles law enforcement long before tweets were a thing – he's been doing his thing since the late 80s.

"I was actually originally interested in listening to airplanes, like air traffic control," he said. "So I was listening to airplanes and randomly found the LAPD channel that back then broadcast the emergency calls."

These days, each LAPD division has its own frequency, and then each bureau has a couple of channels for inter-division communications. Other frequencies are for detectives or specialized units, for a grand total of what @LAScanner says are nearly 200 frequencies.

"Thirty to 35 frequencies are worth listening to with LAPD," he said. "My scanner is definitely not top-of-the-line these days, but for the stuff I like to listen to, you don't need top-of-the-line. You need what I have.

"I just sort of got hooked," he added.

That's one word for it. The man says he's been listening for so long – 24 years – that scanner activity is like "background music" to him.

"I can do anything while I listen," he said. "I can be on the computer, I can be paying bills, I can be doing laundry. I've gotten to the point where I'll have it on like background music and my ears will pick up when something interesting comes on."

His scanner is set to, well, "scan," so it'll automatically roll through frequencies for LAPD, the Los Angeles Fire Department, the Beverly Hills Police Department, Santa Monica Fire Department – and the list goes on – until it picks up some noise. Then @LAScanner will listen and, if he likes what he hears, just may send a tweet out.

Twitter "changed the game" for @LAScanner. "Blogs aren't 'real-time' enough," he said. "Twitter was an amazing tool for everything from politics, to breaking news, to getting information about disasters out there. I never really intentionally started @LAScanner to be funny or provide amusement. It's nice that that's a by-product.

"I always just thought of it as a resource," he said. "It's a way to be funny and reach people, and provide a little twist to what's already out there."

If he had his way, he says, he'd sit on Twitter all day long. His day job gets in the way of that, but @LAScanner is generally in #ScannerOn mode for about two hours every night. For his part, the man behind the account didn't expect such a fervent following.

The #ScannerOn hashtag is how he lets his followers know he's online. "The #ScannerOn thing really caught on, which is awesome," he said. "It's great to have a phrase or tagline so people know you're around. But I've been fortunate in the way that Twitter goes." He pointed to a couple of high-profile retweets that led to his gaining hundreds of followers, as well as support from communities that are highly active on Twitter, like West Hollywood, Studio City and South Los Angeles.

Then there are the pet peeves – some media outlets have ripped off the information in his tweets and run with it as if they were the ones breaking the story.

"If I'm providing a good source of information and people appreciate that and look to @LAScanner for humorous information, and someone picks that up and broadcasts that like they're breaking the news, that's annoying," he said.

Overall, though, @LAScanner doesn't seem to take himself or what he does too seriously – he doesn't see or feel any rivalry between himself and other scanners (i.e. Venice 311, Culver City 311). For him, it's a hobby.

"It's Twitter," he laughed. "It's fun, right? No one's paying me to be here."

Scanning the southside

South L.A. has changed a lot since @LAScanner's curator began tuning in – and he's noticed.

"It was non-stop," he said. "South L.A. in the late '80s through the '90s was just call after call after call. A ton a car burglaries, people stealing hubcaps, tires, stripping cars. There were a lot of random shots fired-type calls."

Back then, too, there was a "higher bar" for cops to turn on their lights and siren when responding to a call: "They would almost never use their lights or sirens," he said. "It literally had to be a shooting in progress."

It was also clear that the area's police force was understaffed. "Cops just weren't showing up," he said. "There were often no units available because they were under-policed and crime was so high."

It got so bad that the same calls would go out three times to no response, so then dispatch would start requesting cars from other divisions like Wilshire or even Venice to respond.

"That was every day," he said. "You just had a lot of these property crimes. It was just non-stop."

He compares that to the past six months (noting that his analysis is purely anecdotal and that he's only really listening about two hours a night): He's heard "maybe one" car-stripping call over the past six months, whereas his impression used to be that people were doing it constantly.

"It may still happen and I may just not be hearing it, but the pace seems to have slowed down all the way across the board," he said.

But still, he can see how it'd be easy to believe that lower published crime rates are at odds with reality. "If you listen to a scanner, it sounds busy out there," he said. "But it's definitely not as busy as it used to be. You still hear a lot of shots-fired calls, plenty of shootings, but it just doesn't seem as fast and as furious as it once was. You can tell just by listening that the police force has been beefed up. You don't have these frantic calls over and over again."

And so he finds today's crime response by the LAPD "pretty impressive," especially for a city so big. He says scanner calls used to be stacked on top of each other, with only a few seconds in between. Now that gap can be as high as seven minutes. Still, the LAPD handles between 3,000 to 4,000 emergency calls a day, says @LAScanner.

"You'll hear Incident 3,500 at 6 p.m.," he said, "and that's pretty crazy." Add that to the fact that the LAPD handles crimes every day that "other departments don't see all year," he said, and you've got a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the city's crime response mechanism.

"In the old days, you could have someone getting robbed at gunpoint, and if they weren't getting shot, the LAPD would not be going there with lights and sirens," he said. "Now those calls get lights and sirens, and the cops will get there faster."

The ethics and art of scanning

Scanning, as @LAScanner's Twitter biography says, is "theater."

"It's a different language," he says. "When you're listening, you pick up on the language, the codes, the numbers. You listen to it and in your head you see what's happening. It's like watching TV without the picture."

He's careful to put forth the disclaimer that he's not an expert source – he's just speaking anecdotally, with more than two decades of listening to scanners under his belt. And he's got boundaries. He won't tweet any domestic violence calls, and rarely tweets about medical calls. He never puts out any identifying information. If he puts out a tweet that turns out to be a bogus call, he owns up in a follow-up tweet. All in all, he estimates he tweets about 10 percent of what he hears on his scanner.

Ten percent is still a lot, though – so much that he's forgotten most of what he's tweeted, even the more outrageous incidents. The events that stand out in his mind are the Malibu and Griffith Park brush fires, "because they went on so long."

"Those were big, big things you just sort of remember because of their magnitude," he said.

And then there's the darker side of scanning; it is crime, after all.

"I'm surprised at how much domestic violence there is," he said. "There are so many calls that go out for men beating women. There's also a lot of stuff involving kids, people hitting their kids. And that's awful."

Hearing cops over the radio who are in trouble is another uniquely unsettling experience. "Those are scary," he said. "At the end of the day, that's what makes it interesting. That's the real-life stuff. Those are the worst, when you hear people that need help."

Hearing crimes described by a third party, a dispatch, he says, makes it much easier to find the humor in a situation, like one where a naked man was jumping around on car hoods in Beverly Hills. That's one of the things that's kept him next to a scanner all these years.

Which, just to be clear, he has no illusions about.

"Listening to a police scanner isn't cool," he said with a laugh. "It's not the coolest thing to tell people you do."

Tell that to his Twitter followers.

First scanner photo by Zuzu via Wikimedia Commons. Second scanner photo by @LAScanner; used with permission.

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