continued "We now listen to a sentence of police talk, rapidly replaced by the dog catcher, then the fire guys come on, only to be replaced by the water department."
Trunking permits a large number of users to share a small number of frequencies. In a trunked system, a single conversation jumps automatically from frequency to frequency -- like a dozen airplanes circling and sharing three runways, Williams said. Trunking was a problem for scanner listeners until the arrival of the trunk-tracker, which, to put it simply, automatically moves the user along to the new talk frequency.
"Mud Shack does not have the capability of releasing all the San Diego police codes to the general public," Williams said. "Media access, of course, is necessary."
While Williams and I were talking, a woman entered the store. She was about 60 and said she lived in Coronado. She needed a new battery for her trunk-tracker. For my benefit, Williams asked her why she listened to a scanner.
"The radio at night is so terrible," she said. "I listen to classical music during the day, but I hate the talk shows at night. I would rather listen to a scanner at night than stare at the ceiling. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and turn it on. It's fun, but you don't get the whole story," she added. "You hear a domestic-abuse case, but nothing about what happens after the arrest."
"It's odd," she said, "but I can't hear anything in Coronado even though I live there. I only hear stuff happening across the bay, safely away from me."
Today, in yet another move to stay ahead of the hobbyists and criminals who use scanners, some police departments are switching to digital communication systems, which are even harder to monitor. The San Diego County Sheriff's Department and the Coronado Police Department implemented digital systems last year. That's why the woman can't monitor the Coronado frequencies.
Considering current anxiety about racial profiling and law-enforcement corruption, some media organizations are concerned that police departments will use digital systems to hide from public scrutiny. An editorial that appeared in the November 27 issue of Editor & Publisher magazine warned, "Even citizens who have no interest in sitting by a scanner listening for the 10-18 'urgent' signal realize society's critical interest in ensuring that news organizations have the tools to monitor how police and public-safety forces are doing their jobs. In emergencies, it falls on the media more than any other institution to get vital information to the public. And, for more than 200 years, Americans have refused to subject themselves to the dangers of secret and unaccountable law enforcement. No mere technology switch justifies trading away liberty."
Pat Drummy, communications manager for the San Diego police, told me on December 20 that the department has no intention of hiding communications from the public -- "quite the opposite," he says -- and isn't planning on upgrading to digital.
"When the digital systems become reliable and stable, we'll change to one," he says. "But we're not comfortable with what's out there, and we would want to be because it would cost between $6 [million] and $8 million to convert. Those who have the new systems do a lot of tinkering, so we'll stick with our archaic system until we find something else."
My investigation into the scanning subculture turned up some odd, paranoid individuals, but no one who seems too worried about losing access to police chatter. One man I spoke to about scanning demanded that I identify him only as a "Washington communications expert with close ties to the current and incoming administrations." He wants to remain anonymous because "the climate in Washington is so weird." He told me I was lucky to be speaking with him at all, as he was about to leave for Hanoi. This raised my hopes that he was about to confess some vast radio conspiracy to me.
"The police are always trying to find ways to hide information from the public," he said. "But the media has adequate access to the San Diego analog system at this time...and the civilian sector does not need to know everything that's going on. Civilians don't need to hear a bank robbery in progress and get any ideas about how to rob a bank. People don't like to be left out, but I believe we have an obligation to protect the public from themselves sometimes."