The real-life stories on a police radio rival any fictional drama Kellie Justice could find on television.
Helicopter pursuits. Hit-and-run accidents. Domestic calls. It’s enough to keep her glued to her scanner for as much as 12 hours at a time.
“The helicopter is a big deal,” she said. “When the helicopter comes out, the scanner page goes crazy. Domestics are off the charts. I get five domestics within a half hour some days.”
Justice started the St. Joe Catch-A-Crime Scanner Crew about a year ago, one of several social media groups that popped up as it becomes easier to monitor police radios with a cell phone app. She hopes her group makes a difference in notifying the public about crime in St. Joseph.
“I’d want to know, on my block, if they’re doing drugs or beating each other up or there’s shots fired,” she said. “I hope we’re doing some good.”
Her motives are genuine, but like many of the calls the police respond to, things can get complicated. Some jurisdictions — though not St. Joseph — have started to encrypt nearly all police radio traffic because of concerns that it’s become too easy to follow the comings and goings of law enforcement.
Departments in Washington, D.C., Denver and Columbus, Georgia, are among those that have blocked public access to nearly all police radio traffic, from traffic accidents to major investigations. Maj. Paul Ezell of the Columbus Police Department outlined two main concerns: criminals will use scanner traffic to stay one step ahead of law enforcement, and curious onlookers will show up at crime or accident scenes and become a hindrance.
He recalls one suspect who was shot and killed by a homeowner while attempting to break into the residence. “Laying next to his body was a cell phone with our police traffic,” Ezell said. “He was listening to the police traffic while he was committing this home invasion.”
Encryption technology is becoming available to law enforcement agencies in St. Joseph, but that doesn’t mean they will deploy it as widely as the department in Columbus. The Buchanan County Sheriff’s Office has encryption capability on all radios, but only the Drug Strike Force and the court marshals utilize it on a regular basis. Strike Force officers have used encrypted communication for about 15 years.
Capt. Shawn Collie, commander of the Strike Force, said the sheriff decided to keep the department’s primary channel open.
“You go fully encrypted and you’re cutting off a lot of your eyes and ears and stuff,” he said, “and communication is what everybody needs.”
The St. Joseph Police Department lists radio system encryption as one of its planned initiatives in the 2020 budget cycle. Capt. Jeff Wilson, a public information officer for the department, said the primary police channel is likely to remain open while encrypted channels are used for special operations and enforcement, including the helicopter patrols that seek to stop vehicle thefts.
“Our last helicopter operation, if you tried hard enough, you could listen,” he said.
Justice believes the open channels and scanner groups ultimately benefit police because the public sees their hard work and professionalism on a daily basis. She would miss listening to the helicopter operations but would be eager to hear anything other than static coming from her scanner.
“If I can’t hear it, I can’t tell you about it,” she said. “It’s that simple.”