Police radio is surprisingly funSteve Hammer

I love gadgets. I've loved gadgets ever since my days of using the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle to perform hit-and-run accidents on my sister's Barbie Malibu Mansion. ...but there's still plenty of juicy info to be had on a scanner.

A bit later in childhood, I solved the mystery of the Rubik's Cube and I learned how to use Lego bricks to build intricate mazes for ants. I even used a neighbor's E-Z Bake Oven to melt the paint off Hot Wheels cars.

To this day, if there's a gizmo or whatchacallit that I haven't had experience with yet, I buy one as soon as I can.

After years of internal debate of cost-versus-fun, I finally plunked down the cash for a Radio Shack Pro-95 handheld dual-trunking police scanner.

It's not like I haven't had experience with scanners; for years and years, every newspaper where I worked had one blaring all day long. In the late 1990s, I was briefly addicted to illegally monitoring cordless phone and cellular calls with a scanner.

But listening in on peoples' private conversations was like a heroin habit; the first few times are amazing but sustaining the habit becomes impossible after a while.

Listening in to people argue about their sex lives and drug deals is one thing, but when you're staying up until 2 a.m. monitoring old ladies talking about recipes and soap operas, you know something's wrong.

Times have changed and federal laws have made it close to impossible to listen in to cell phone calls anymore. But the Pro-95 has become my best friend for other reasons.

Instead of wasting valuable time playing videogames or watching TV, I now monitor all of the Marion County law-enforcement and emergency-service frequencies for fun and entertainment.

Sure, most of the time you're hearing about fender-bender accidents or false-alarm security systems going off, but there's still plenty of juicy info to be had on a scanner.

Last week, I listened in as an undercover task force trailed some suspects on the highway and through the city. I followed all of the action resulting from last Thursday's massive thunderstorm, which not only flooded streets but caused several downed poles and utility lines and set at least one house on fire.

I was getting ready to hit a nightclub when the scanner told me about flooded streets in Broad Ripple, so I stayed put.

I've discovered that several of the dispatchers for the Indianapolis Police Department and the Sheriff's Department have very sexy voices and that I wish I could transmit on their frequency just to ask them for their phone numbers.

Also fun with scanners: monitoring fast-food drive-through channels. It may seem boring, but it turns into a Dadaist play when you listen closely. Since every single demographic group uses the drive-up window at least occasionally, you get to hear all sorts of people. Some ask for items not on the menu. Some try and haggle over the price.

I overheard a man order a cheeseburger from McDonald's with "extra meat." When the clerk suggested a double cheeseburger instead, the customer refused. He wanted a regular cheeseburger with extra meat, so that's what he got.

But fast-food work is surprisingly dangerous. In the past week, there have been several robberies of fast-food joints by criminals using the drive-up window. Astonishing.

Even though you can't monitor phone frequencies anymore, I did pick up a tip on the Internet that works wonders. Wal-Mart supervisors use a radio system to communicate in-store. Oftentimes, the conversations get gossipy because only a few have the radios. However, if you go into Wal-Mart's auto department, you'll see a few scanners on display. Set the display radios to the store's frequency and voila! Instant workplace turmoil!

I've had problems with noisy neighbors lately. Around 3 a.m. one recent night, I took my scanner outdoors, then re-entered the building with the radio blaring at top volume. Instant silence! There's no noise quite like a police radio. I didn't say I was a police officer, but the noise of the radio brought the desired result.

But the main things I've learned from following scanner traffic are, one, there's a lot more crime in the city than one might think; and two, I have much more respect for the hard work put in by our city's law enforcement and paramedics.

Most of us go to work, do the same thing day after day and then go home. But in the course of one shift, an IPD or MCSD officer can handle anything from traffic control to breaking up domestic disputes to a murder case. And, while there are bad apples in any barrel, I'd bet more than 99 percent of cops are honest, hardworking and vastly underpaid.

They're trained to deal with people in very bad situations and handle them with professionalism, courtesy and good humor. Most people only like cops when they need one. The scanner, which shows the law enforcement officials in the course of their official duty, puts your outlook on them in perspective.

Alas, the days of enjoying police scanner traffic may be numbered. The county opened bids this week on a new digital system that would make today's scanners obsolete.

That would be a shame not only because the city is dead broke, but community/police relations would get exponentially better if everyone could hear just how hard our city's officers work.

Now I need to get back to my scanner.


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