This summer, as denunciations of racist police violence and calls to defund law enforcement intensified across the country, Baltimore residents have been getting a real-time insight into their own troubled police department.
A Twitter account called Scan the Police began live-tweeting transmissions heard on the city’s police scanner in June.
“Cop asking for Animal Control at the Eastern District . . . Caller says a woman is sleeping in her business hallway. Cop responds, ’10-4, I’ll go wake her up and tell her to get out’. . . Officer with a dead battery needs a jump.”
This virtual ride-along has its share of cops-and-crooks policing, but it also includes a striking number of drug overdoses and behavioral crises and calls like “a woman crying outside a McDonald’s” – situations that critics say would be better suited to be handled by medics, social workers or crisis intervention teams.
The tweets document police dispersing people hanging out on stoops or at fast food restaurants – potentially the kind of racially biased policing that brought a scathing 2016 U.S. Justice Department finding that the BPD systematically harassed Black residents by stopping, searching and arresting them often with little provocation or rationale.
And sometimes, they also document the use of deadly force. In July, Scan the Police live-tweeted as officers responded to a report of a possibly armed man in crisis who they eventually shot and critically injured.
Scan the Police volunteers haven’t been shy about framing their accounts of scanner chatter to highlight themes not exactly welcome in police circles.
Now the city is moving to effectively shut down Scan the Police by encrypting police scanner transmissions – content that has long been accessible to journalists and any member of the public who cares to listen.
On Tuesday night, the agency issued a statement saying, “In following national best practices, the Baltimore Police Department is working to encrypt it’s emergency communications channels to protect potential victims and witnesses, while also enhancing officer safety.”
Founder Caitlin Goldblatt said she wasn’t surprised by the announcement, given the harsh mirror @scanthepolice holds up to the BPD. “We thought it’s only a matter of time before cops decide it’s a problem,” she said.
ACLU: “Useful and Important”
David Rocah, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Maryland, described the encryption plan as “a gigantic step backwards” in terms of police transparency and accountability.
“The Scan the Police Twitter account is incredibly useful and important in clearly showing just how much police activity doesn’t actually require an armed police response,” Rocah told The Brew.
“There is no apparent good reason for this move, other than to shield the BPD from public scrutiny,” he said. “They already have tools for secure communication when that is necessary.”
The encryption emerged as part of a planned $13 million police radio system upgrade financed through the city’s master lease program with Grant Capital Management. The Board of Estimates approved the lease, even though it came before them after it was disclosed that the company’s founder, J.P. Grant, “donated” more than $150,000 to Catherine Pugh through her Healthy Holly book company. Pugh is currently serving a three-year sentence in federal prison after pleading guilty to tax evasion and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
In recent years, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Washington D.C., and many other police departments have encrypted their radio transmissions.
The typical argument is that by doing so, suspects are prevented from listening in on police actions and people’s personal information is not released.
“There is no apparent good reason for this move, other than to shield the BPD from public scrutiny” – David Rocah, ACLU of Maryland.
Critics, however, point out that the BPD is already able to switch to multiple private channels, or use cell phones, to conduct sensitive conversations.
The BPD noted that “established media outlets” – who sign a memorandum of understanding – would be given “equipment” to allow them to continue to hear scanner transmissions. (@scanthepolice would almost certainly not be one of them, Goldblatt said.)
That proposed gate-keeping brought derision from Baynard Woods who tweeted, “When cops decide who is press, press quickly become cops.”
“On the one hand, it is a stab against transparency that makes the next GTTF worse. On the other, it offers Big Media another way to crush smaller rivals,” said Woods, a former City Paper editor and the co-author of I Got a Monster, which tells the story of robberies, false arrests and drug dealing by the BPD’s corrupt Gun Trace Task Force.
City Council President Brandon Scott has not yet responded to a request for comment on the proposed scanner encryption.
Alternative to Press Releases
Speaking with The Brew, Scan the Police founder Goldblatt talked about the origins of the account she started just under three months ago and which now has 4,467 followers.
These days, she and about 20 volunteers take turns live-tweeting scanner communications they hear throughout the day.
But Goldblatt began the practice on her personal account, describing listening to the police scanner an “obsessive” tendency from her days as a freelance writer.
Goldblatt said she got the idea to create a minute-by-minute transcription of what officers said about incidents, as opposed to depending on press releases or media coverage. It struck a nerve.
“After doing this 16 hours a day, I realized this is the only thing I’ve done online that people like,” she said, explaining that people from social justice groups reached out early on to encourage her in her efforts.
In the beginning, the account focused on tweeting what police do during protests and on hot-button issues like the response to people shooting off fireworks leading up to Fourth of July.
Now, tweeting throughout the day, it reveals the unnecessary and often wasteful use of law enforcement officers to handle minor issues, she said.
“The number of times when a call came in about someone complaining about a person sitting on their stoop was staggering, and it wasn’t even someone dealing drugs.
“Instead of saying, ‘No, that’s bullshit,’ the cops would respond to that, while leaving the scene of something like a rape,” she said.
She said she was particularly surprised by how infrequently medics weren’t dispatched by police to overdose victims.
“Cops would ask if anyone had Narcan, which is free, so with a $500- million-plus budget, it shocked us that this basic life saving tool was excluded from their gear,” she said.
“We would hear about people having overdoses written up for ‘disorderly,” she said. “What happened to those people? Were they just left to die?”
Racial Mockery and More
Some of the themes of Baltimore policing that have surfaced on @scanthepolice, according to Goldblatt:
• The constant following of dirt bikers – “There was a single dirt biker who was followed home, along with Foxtrot to an alley in West Baltimore. That’s just one guy on a dirt bike,” she noted.
• Ricky Walker Jr. – The scanner chatter leading up to his shooting was also revealing. “They didn’t call in a crisis intervention team for that incident, so there were cops surrounding this man, and body camera footage showed he was begging for his life before they shot him.”
• Racial mockery – “They were asking one time for a Spanish-speaking officer to come to a site,” she recalled. “The cops started making very crude remarks in accents I suppose they perceived to be from a Spanish-speaking country.”
• Troubling transmissions before an officer was picked up on child pornography charges – “A call came in from a dad who said that he had naked photos of his underage teenage daughter sent to him, and the daughter said a police officer took those from her.”
• Outing their own informants – “There was a group from the BGF gang, and their informant thought he’d been followed by that gang. The officer said the exact location he was hiding out, and he was begging cops to help him out, but they just ignored him.”
• Military metaphors – “There’s a lot of cases of cops using military terminology to refer to themselves. Constantly we hear them refer to themselves as having ‘troops’ instead of patrol cars. They also are constantly referring to their tours of duty. They see themselves as an occupying force.”
• Overtime talk – There are constant scanner calls for cops to work overtime, and the officers seem eager to jump on it. “You hear, ‘You making that money? You getting that paper?’”
• Time Gaps – Responding to a report of “that man wearing an orange shirt” someone replied “Bro, you know him, we all know him,” and then multiple units were called, Goldblatt said. “Then we don’t hear too much until 45 minutes after they detain this guy, and they’re finally bringing him to the Northern District for arrest.”
“Knowing these time stamps on the scanner becomes important should something happen to that man outside of appropriate police duties. Not having that information puts the public and victims of police brutality in the dark.”
Black People Knew
One overall observation Goldblatt takes away from the project is the degree to which everything it exposes has been well-documented in Black communities for decades.
But their outcries about police brutality and corruption fell on deaf ears with the compliance of a white-dominated power structure, a docile media, and city and state politicians who continue to take police union money.
“If everyone else had believed Black people a long time ago, and made substantive change based on that belief,” she said, “we wouldn’t be facing down this opacity now.”