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What is a Police Scanner?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A police scanner is a device which is used for scanning radio frequencies used by law enforcement. The scanner is capable of listening to multiple frequencies at once and playing transmissions as they are received. Police scanners are also known as radio scanners and most are capable of listening in on frequencies well beyond those utilized by law enforcement alone. Specialized models are also capable of decryption of encoded signals, although the legality of such models may be debatable in some regions of the world.

The police scanner has its origins in the 1970s, when police officers began using radio communications on a regular basis. The ability to listen to several frequencies at once allows people to hear numerous communications at the same time, which can be extremely useful for people like dispatchers. Most police scanners have a squelch feature so that the speaker only activates when the device finds audio to play. This ensures that people are not forced to listen to static while the scanner looks for frequencies which are broadcasting.

Other features can include lockout buttons which cause the scanner to skip frequencies the user is not interested in, as well as features which save or record frequencies. The features available depend on the model. Generally, the more features, the larger and more expensive a police scanner will be. Certain features may also not be legal in all areas and people should be careful when buying a scanner to confirm that it will not violate the law.

A police scanner can be set to check certain frequencies, to scan a range of frequencies, or to search for frequencies. Journalists use police scanners to get up to date information about the crime beat so that they can respond quickly to breaking news stories. Likewise, some hobbyists are interested in hearing law enforcement communications on scanners. More dubious reasons to own a police scanner include the desire to be alerted to police in the vicinity while driving, or the use of a scanner to assist with planning or executing a crime.

Many countries have laws about how scanners can be used. While law enforcement broadcasts may be public in nature because they are not encrypted, people cannot use them in criminal activity, and decoding transmissions which are encrypted is not legal. Some regions ban the use of devices which can receive only, arguing that legitimate uses would include transmission and reception.

EasyTechJunkie is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a EasyTechJunkie researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By amypollick — On Dec 14, 2011

@anon234870: Yes, it's legal, but there are ways around nearly everything. First, contact the director of adult/elderly intake services at your county's department of family services, and tell them what's going on, and ask them for options. Sounds like your mom needs a social worker assigned to take care of some things.

Second, call your city's police department and ask who would handle these issues. Make an appointment with the supervisor/commander, and ask for a silent code (different places have different names for this) if your mom's address comes up on the dispatcher's computer. They can silently message your mother's address and the call code (like a welfare check, disturbance reported, etc.) to the officer responding to the call, rather than broadcasting it over the radio. Also ask the responding officer(s) not to run the sirens when they get within a certain distance, say a mile, of your mother's residence. If they are running with lights only (a silent run), this shouldn't give the person any advance notice.

Most of the time, police officers are willing to help in any way they can, particularly when a child or elderly person is involved. Good luck.

By anon234870 — On Dec 14, 2011

I just learned that my Mom's abusive caregiver has a "friend" who owns a police scanner and warns the caregiver every time the police are coming to investigate the screaming and crying that emanate from my Mom's place. Is this legal?

By kylee07drg — On Nov 03, 2011

I work at a newspaper, and whenever I walk through the editorial department, I hear voices coming in on the police scanner. I usually stay over on the advertising side where my office is, but sometimes I have to go over there, and that thing is almost always chattering about something.

I know that they kept it on to find out about things like local fires, shootings, or break-ins. It helps them get to the scene before the fire has even been extinguished sometimes, and the photographer gets amazing shots.

The funny thing is that when the scanner tells us that a funnel cloud has been spotted, the photographer never goes out to shoot it. Instead, he hides with the rest of the employees in the basement. I don’t think that the bosses really expect him to put his life in danger, anyway.

By cloudel — On Nov 02, 2011

My parents are retired, and they keep their police scanner on for entertainment and possible excitement. They have it on all the time, even when they are watching TV or reading.

When I come over for a visit, I find it annoying. The thing is constantly interrupting our conversations, and they have it turned up pretty loud, because their hearing is not so great.

I’ve tried turning it down, but they complain and say they don’t want to miss anything. It’s worse than if they were addicted to a TV show, because unlike specific programs, this thing is always on.

By shell4life — On Nov 01, 2011

@SarahSon - I’m with you. I would not want a scanner if my child was on duty. The worst thing would be to hear gunshots or screaming.

Imagine if you were listening in and heard another officer asking for backup because his partner had been shot, and you knew that his partner was your son. Sometimes it’s better to hear about things later on, like when he’s in the hospital all bandaged up and recovering.

I know I would freak out if I knew my kid had been hurt but didn’t know how badly. If he ever got killed while on duty, I would not want to find out about it on the police scanner.

By Perdido — On Nov 01, 2011

@stl156 - There are some things you can learn during storms from a police scanner before your local television station even has access to the information. We have a lot of tornadoes in my area, and this is why I own a scanner.

Often, if a tornado has passed through the neighborhood, you can hear officers talking about the touchdown and the amount of damage in a certain area. The newscasters don’t learn of this until they have had time to send a reporter out to the area, so I hear about it a lot quicker.

My friend down the street was in her tornado shelter with her scanner, and she did not even know it had hit her house until she heard a cop talking about it. She stuck her head out of the shelter to find her house a pile of rubble.

By kentuckycat — On Oct 31, 2011

Although they are a little different than police scanners Nascar scanners use the same type of concept that the police use.

Whenever I watch a race you can see and hear what is going on inside the cars and listen to what the drivers are saying to their crew chiefs, formulating strategies to be used later in the race.

I have also noticed that there are certain lock out features that the drivers will utilize sometimes so other drivers or pit crews do not listen to what they are taking about or what strategies they are going to use in the race.

I have always thought that it was very interesting that Nascar drivers use similar types of scanners that police use and that they could take something complex, like a car race and be able to simplify the communication aspect involved.

By stl156 — On Oct 30, 2011

I once bought a police scanner and I have to say that it is a very interesting thing to have and it has provided me much entertainment over the years.

The best time to listen to a police scanner is if the power has been knocked out or there is a storm warning that requires you to go into your basement.

Whenever there is a massive storm and the power gets knocked out I go to my basement and listen to the police scanner. It is interesting to have a type of live scanner where you can hear everything going on as it happens and know what is going on despite not being able to see it.

By ddljohn — On Oct 30, 2011

Most of the police scanners that are sold out in department stores are not the same as the scanner in a police vehicle.

A lot of people think that they can pick up any scanner and listen in, but it's a bit more complicated than that. If it's legal for you to use one in your state, you can but you will need a pretty high tech one with a trunk system that has multiple channels on it and these cost a lot. I don't think it's worth paying so much for one when there is no guarantee that it's going to work the way you want it to. The cheaper ones are probably not going to pick anything up.

I've even seen online police scanners that claim to scan and broadcast police radio from across the country. People who are dying to hear the NYPD and other top police departments are buying into this and actually paying for it. Unfortunately, the broadcast is not real or legal, they're being cheated out of their money.

By burcinc — On Oct 29, 2011

@ysmina-- I have a police scanner and know a lot of people who do too. Like you said, it's mainly out of curiosity. I live in a small town and everyone knows everyone here. Sometimes we'll hear the police cars going by with their sirens on and turn on the radio to see what's up. I know most of the policeman on duty and I know most of the people who live here so when there is crime or an accident nearby, it's almost like a family matter to us.

I understand where you're coming from though. I imagine that not everyone in the country who owns a police scanner uses it with the same intentions we do. But a lot of police departments actually have protections against this and only allow the public to listen in on the dispatcher's conversations and not the police officers'.

I'm sure someone who's pretty savvy with technology could work their way around it, but I don't think that many people do it with ill intentions. It's just out of curiosity to know what's going on in the community.

By ysmina — On Oct 29, 2011

I don't understand why anyone would want to own a police scanner for a hobby. I don't think that the public should have access to where the police is and what they're doing. I realize that some people just listen in for the sheer excitement of it or out of curiosity. But I think it could endanger policemen and police activity. If police scanners are legal in an area, you just don't know who could be listening in.

By SarahSon — On Oct 29, 2011

We have some friends whose son is a local police officer. They have a police scanner in their home that is on most of the time. If they know their son is on duty, they almost always have this scanner on.

I have been visiting when this is on, and hear the chatter and beeps in the background. They have listened to this enough that they recognize sounds and voices that are not familiar to me.

If my son was a police officer, I don't know if this is something I would have on or not. I think it might cause me to worry even more.

There have been a few tense situations their son has been involved in, and I think it would almost be worse hearing it over the scanner and worrying about every communication that came across the scanner.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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