For over a decade, Portlanders looking to get real time information about emergencies unfolding in their city each day have had two options: they could listen to the scanner traffic — or they could let @pdxalerts do it for them.
The account has been on Twitter since the beginning of the social media site. It posts generally useful, sometimes outlandish, tidbits heard from the police and fire scanner: reports of road closures, house fires, the occasional machete wielder. Over that time, the account has earned a following larger than the city’s mayor, the fire bureau and the region’s most Twitter-savvy local journalists.
The page is up-front in its Twitter biography that it is not an official agency. But not everyone bothers with the fine print. Some people think the information is coming straight from the city. Others think it’s a bot.
Few are aware it’s actually a loose collective of self-described scanner nerds who get a kick out of casually listening to the police radio and posting the information they think people want to hear. Many have a background in emergency services and listen to the scanner the way others might listen to their local radio stations or a podcast — in the background, when time allows.
But in early June, members turned their scanners to the Portland police dispatch channels and heard nothing.
No more talk of fires, car crashes or welfare checks. The dispatch channels for Portland Police Bureau’s East and North precincts now emit an emergency tone every 30 seconds or so. The Central precinct channel is silent.
A spokesperson for the Portland police said they’d been planning to encrypt their channels since November due “to safety and information security concerns.” But when the protests for racial justice began, the local police jumped ahead of schedule. They brought police dispatch onto the already encrypted networks they used for sensitive information. The bureau’s shooting to encrypt the original dispatch channels sometime next year. Nearly everything will be kept out of the public’s earshot, permanently.
While police say it’s a necessary shift to protect the personal information of officers, those who heard the scanner fall silent saw it as an ill-timed blow to police transparency, coming right as cries for accountability reached fever pitch.
“People have the right to listen, and they have a right to know what’s going on in their city,” said a @PDXalerts contributor going by Giles, who has been a part of the team since 2012. “If they go all encrypted, then they completely control the entire narrative of anything that’s going on. Everybody has to wait for the police to tell us what happened, as opposed to people having listened and heard what is going on in real time.”
“And not to mention for @PDXalerts, we kind of lose our bread and butter.”
Giles, who asked to not use his real name because it could jeopardize his job, said part of the group’s mission is to provide a look at the city’s odder side. They keep close track of the seemingly disproportionate number of machete-related calls that come in and they were the first to report on a group of women surrounding an unsuspecting Portlander and screaming to get the devil out.
But they also see many of their alerts as a public service and believe there should have been an open discussion around the decision to encrypt radios – or at least a press release.
Portland-police to a home on N. Baldwin-caller reporting an "nonconsensual exorcism" taking place - females screaming to "get the devil out"— Portland OR Alerts (@pdxalerts) February 25, 2016
In other cities, ending a historically open stream of public information has proven controversial, and law enforcement agencies have had to tread carefully. Denver police negotiated with local media outlets for eight months before making the switch. A small police department in Pennsylvania put a poll on its Facebook page. New York City is promising a slow “3-5 year transition.”
But in Portland, it seems only public agencies got a head’s up about the move: The city’s Bureau of Emergency Communications said staff had meetings this spring with police and partner agencies to make sure no wires got crossed when they switched to encryption.
The bureau was told police wanted to encrypt their radios to “protect officer safety and confidential information,” according to a spokesperson. The Portland Police Bureau did not offer much detail beyond that. But in other cities, where the debate over encryption has been more fully fleshed out, police chiefs have said the change is necessary, in part, due to the proliferation of police scanner apps. Police argue if anyone with a smartphone can tune into the airwaves and learn an officer’s location, police are in danger and suspects can avoid capture.
In the days after the May 25 killing of George Floyd, scanner apps saw a record number of downloads with thousands nationwide eager to monitor police movement. Portland police dispatch went silent on June 3, according to the city.
Giles said he felt it was reasonable, from a tactical perspective, for police to not want to broadcast their nightly movements during protests. But he took issue with the argument that they need to keep all dispatch permanently on encrypted channels in the name of officer safety.
“We’ve never seen anything to support the idea that people are trying to ambush officers just by following their movements via scanner,” he said, adding that there is a small delay between when information goes out to police and when it comes through on a smartphone.
While police say scanners pose a threat to officer’s safety, Kyu Ho Youm, First Amendment Chair at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism, said he believes silencing them presents a danger for a free press. Without access to police dispatch, local media outlets will no longer have easy access to the messy first draft of an event. Instead, they’ll need to rely more heavily on an often sanitized narrative coming from the police. This, Youm notes, comes at a point when public trust in the police has reached historic lows.
“Probably police encryption couldn’t be put into place in a worst time in a worse moment,” Youm said.
Now, Giles said, the group behind @PDXalerts may have to think about morphing into something new. They could listen to dispatch from the sheriff’s office and other counties, but that doesn’t mesh as well with their Twitter handle promise of alerts from Portland. They could recycle their most popular tweets or roam around in their free time tweeting what they see.
Whatever happens, Giles said, he’s certain Portlanders will now miss out on some distinctly Portland going-ons.
“Where else are you going to have a non-consensual exorcism if not the city of Portland?”