Ambient City Police Conversations

The police procedural is a staple of modern television with some of the most successful tv series Baltimore, MD. Photo Credit, ursusdave @ photocamel.comof all time, including Hill Street Blues, Law & Order and the CSI franchise. They show the public how it is working as a cop in a big city, fighting the bad guys and delivering justice. These shows however, deliver a very Hollywood version of what it is to work as police in a city with high crime rates. Most of these shows will indeed have consultants and producers with some sort of background in criminology or the justice system, but when it comes down to telling a story to an audience it’s maybe not the wisest choice for a show to be as gritty as real life for fears of losing viewers.

When The Wire debuted back in 2002 it was critically acclaimed by both the media and police personnel for it’s realism. The Wire conveyed the American city for what it really is, a sprawling, culture rich place with more social problems than anyone knows how to deal with. It gave you an insight on how broken each institution in Baltimore was, from underfunded state schools to the corrupt mayors office. But the main hook of the Wire, why people come back to it and praise it was the accurate portrayal of the police. The day to day of a rank and file police officer is what kept people coming back for more, the thrill of seeing the city fight against drug crime and violence.
Baltimore, Maryland has been described by The Wire‘s creator David Simon as a central character in the show. The town’s culture and people play such a big part in the show using real life police officers and former drug kingpins as actors to portray the rich heritage of the city.

I recently wondered if it was possible to experience an American city without really being there, to know it and to feel it’s beating pulse. Television came close with The Wire with it’s in depth look at the American Dream, now the internet has provided us with a similar seminal look at how it is to work as a cop.

youarelistening.to is a website that streams police scanners from all across the United States via service called Broadcastify along with ambient music playlists streamed from Soundcloud. Broadcastify is a free world service that streams Air traffic control, Fire Department, Marine Services and other public service broadcasts online. The idea that anyone would want to listen to this is ludicrous. Why would i want to listen to a bunch of people talking on a radio, about nothing i know about? Using the CB ten codes through the sometimes hard to understand choppy radio signals?
Yet the longer you listen to the stream, the most fascinating it becomes.
It starts off slow. youarelistening.to starts off on the LAPD police radio with a couple of brief bits of talk as the song kicks in and then it becomes interesting. Random cops start shouting numbers down the line at each other and carefully announcing street names and describing suspects in the area. Within 5 minutes i knew that the LAPD police department were looking for a hispanic male in his mid-sixties that had committed a hit and run in Los Angeles.
There is many cities to choose from so i tried several of their scanners. Many of them were blank however, simply there might have not been much happening at the time, or there were more channels being used in those cities, as some of the scanners are specific relating to special ops, traffic control and fire departments.
When I listened into the Baltimore City Police channel (youarelistening.to/baltimore) that is when i started to feel the ethereal qualities of this streaming website. The otherworldly qualities of the music playlist make you feel as though you are floating above the earth, then listening to the harsh realities that the police face bring you crashing right back down. They are working the beat in a city with one of the highest crime rates in the world. When you log on you hear call outs every moment such as “35 year old female found unconscious and not breathing, South Lafayette street” and “Mark Williams, DOB 12/7/73 Tattoo on his neck, heading southbound – break ins on West Baltimore st” “Aight man 10-4”, “Male driver acting aggressive, West Lexington st, yellow Ford Lincoln”

This is no longer on a level that The Wire ever got to, this is genuine police action as it is happening. It’s entertainment value stems from the strangely fitting ambient sound scape provided by Soundcloud users to make you feel included in part of these police runs, these cops attempting to stop crime in the moment. There is a point where entertainment and real life collide on youarelistening.to. It may be interesting to have a look into how police work on the beat but there is also an element of voyeurism into these people’s lives.
These people aren’t at home on the internet, listening in to conversations. They don’t even know that they are being listened to or may not even care. These police scanners are active to serve and protect the people, much like the often said motto of police everywhere. People may have issues with police nowadays as police brutality cases come into the public eye more often, with the subreddit Bad Cop, No Donut highlighting many of the issues with policing today. This police scanner mix-tape hybrid shows police work at it’s core with no disparaging elements to it. It shows that these are just ordinary people, doing their jobs, trying to keep people in their community safe. It is both life affirming and disturbing at the same time, and that isn’t something you come across very often.

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