VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — After switching to encrypted transmission this month, the Virginia Beach Police Department scanners are quiet, leaving thousands of scanner hobbyists without their beloved entertainment.
“Some people will say ‘I’ll listen to the scanner before I watch Netflix,” says Navy veteran Harry Brogan, who runs a Facebook group following scanner traffic in Virginia Beach. “There are quite a few that, they live for it.”
Brogan says he isn’t a fanatic, but he frequently tunes in, and follows discussion of incidents in the Facebook group.
“It’s relaxing,” he says. Most hobbyists use cell phone apps to listen in. There are quite a few, including 5-0 Radio and Scanner Radio, which pull streams from Broadcastify.
For Brogan, the habit has come in handy. He recalls a bank robbery several years ago near his home. Upon hearing sirens, Brogan tuned into the police transmission and learned the suspect was seen headed toward his neighborhood.
“So I went around, locked the doors up, just in case,” he says.
The switch to encrypted transmissions was first approved by city council in 2018. For nearly $5 million, all officers and vehicles were issued new radios, with frequencies that can’t be accessed by existing scanner machinery and phone applications.
Lt. Bradley Wesseler of the Virginia Beach Police Department says that officers too often share personal information about individuals over the airwaves. Social security numbers, addresses, information about minors, could end up in the wrong hands.
“That’s what we’re concerned about. We can’t have citizens having access to that,” he says.
And, some are listening to scanners with a more nefarious intent than the hobbyist community.
Wesseler says that during vehicle pursuits, traffic stops, and during protests amid civil unrest, officers find that criminals are using scanners to track police movement.
“So, officers feel a little more comfortable giving out their information or a specific location,” he says.
Brogan says the switch had members of community of scanner hawks panicked.
“I said don’t worry we still have the EMS and fire,” Brogan says. His group also discusses incidents in other localities.
Scanner transmission is critical to covering breaking news. It was over the airwaves that 10 On Your Side first got wind of the 2019 mass shooting at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center.
“I was able to call the PIO. She was running to the scene,” recalls Assignment Desk Editor Dominic Ross. “I asked her if it was an active shooter drill and she said ‘It’s not a drill.’ That’s when we moved.”
While 10 On Your Side doesn’t report directly from scanner transmissions, journalists gather information to confirm with authorities. In Virginia Beach, the public still has access to EMS and the fire department’s transmissions, meaning if a violent crime occurs, the medical response is available. Police are typically called to a scene first before calling in medical assistance, meaning crews won’t get the news as quickly.
“We’ll just be a little bit behind,” Ross says.
Most agencies across the country use partial encryption. FBI and SWAT team operations, for example, have long used encrypted channels.
VBPD joins police departments in Hampton and York County in using the private transmissions.
According to the Virginia Press Association, police departments in Richmond, Chesterfield County, Henrico County and Warren County also moved to fully encrypt their transmissions.
In California, legislation was introduced in 2022 into the statehouse to prevent agencies from using encrypted transmissions. While no so legislation is introduced in Virginia, VPA Executive Director Elizabeth Edwards says scanner encryption would diminish the media’s ability to cover breaking news.
“ VPA is always in favor of maximum transparency. The public benefits when reporters can get all the facts and get them quickly.
Reporters have used police scanners for years to find out what potential crimes have been committed and to begin covering those crimes as quickly as possible.
They also use them to cover fires, accidents and even things like protests. All of this up to the minute reporting benefits the public.
Encrypting police scanners would greatly diminish the media’s ability to cover breaking news.”
Wesseler says that VBPD will release information to the public when requested, if there is not an ongoing investigation, and it will comply with FOIA law.