I don’t think it’s news to anybody that there’s been some civil unrest in 2020. And in many cases, when protestors have been detained, cops and feds have cited possession of police scanners as proof that they were up to no good. But are police scanners illegal?
Police scanners are not illegal. A police scanner is just a radio, picking up broadcasts on radio waves, which belong to anybody, some of which happen to be used by police. So-called police scanners have uses other than listening to police broadcasts, and listening to police broadcasts is not illegal.
Can you get in trouble for listening to a police scanner?
The public airwaves belong to everybody, so there is nothing illegal about listening to the airwaves. There’s also no way for anyone to detect you’re doing it, since a police scanner is just a radio. It listens on different frequencies than the radio in your car, but it’s still a radio.
If someone wants to use the public airwaves and doesn’t want you listening to it, it’s their responsibility to scramble the signal. Cell phone companies do that for consumers by encrypting our phone conversations.
There’s nothing wrong with or nefarious about listening to the local police and fire department on a scanner. Journalists did it for the entire 20th century, and that was how they covered the criminal justice beat. The famous photojournalist Weege used to sleep with a police scanner by his bed. He trained himself to get up when he heard certain things and rush to the scene of an event in the middle of the night to get the shots that propelled him to immortality.
There’s no other way for police and fire departments to communicate to journalists what’s going on, so the use of police scanners serves an important function. Some people want to say that carrying a police scanner makes you a rioter. The First Amendment gives them the right to say that, but they are wrong. Knowing when someone is about to come infringe on your First Amendment rights isn’t just legal, it’s smart.
Police scanners lead to accountability
Authoritarians like to make up rules to justify the things they do. But this is just one of those made-up rules. Police routinely break the law by listening to conversations on Stingrays without the proper warrant, then say if you weren’t doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about. In this case, the same logic applies to them. If they aren’t doing anything wrong, there’s no harm in anyone listening to their conversations on the scanner and knowing where they are and what they’re doing.
If the communications are sensitive, police have other ways to communicate and keep others from hearing it. They can learn how to use them.
Other uses of police scanners
Besides, the whole name of police scanner is a misnomer. There’s nothing illegal about listening to police talking to each other, but there are lots of non-police uses for a scanner as well. Racing fans use them to listen to pit crews. Railroad fans use them to listen to dispatchers, so they know when there’s going to be a train in the area they can photograph. And in years past, you could use them to listen to cordless and cellular phone conversations.
The airwaves belong to the public, and the public is free to listen to them, if they have any interest in what happens to be going on over them. Most people aren’t.