Driving to work one morning, Phillip Murphy heard his portable scanner crackle to life with a report of a shooting in north Minneapolis.
Two sides trading insults amid gunfire. Several loud pops followed by tires screeching. People running.
Murphy pulled out his cellphone, logged into Facebook and tapped out a hasty message to his followers about the shooting, in which a 62-year-old man was grazed by a bullet while standing at a bus stop. Then he raced to the scene, where he nodded to police officers stringing up yellow crime tape. By then, hundreds of people had seen his post.
Murphy, 53, isn’t some high-ranking police official charged with informing the public about grisly crimes across the city. He runs a flower shop.
He is part of a small but growing number of Minnesotans — particularly those who live in neighborhoods with high crime rates — who follow emergency dispatches intended for police, firefighters and other rescue workers. They represent a new generation of “scanner junkies” who listen day and night, on $500 scanners or online livestreams and update one another on Twitter or in Facebook groups like True North Minneapolis, Northeast Vent and North Vent. The pages, like others focusing on other parts of the city, started as a place where frustrated residents could vent about relatively petty complaints like rundown houses, wild yards, vandalism and loitering. Slow police response times are also a popular topic of conversation.
But with street violence growing in parts of north Minneapolis, the posts have become more grim. Murphy considers his posts a duty of sorts.
“I guess I consider this to be advocacy work for excess of information, since nobody else is giving it to us, we have to do it for ourselves,” he said. “Without the information, no one will know and the problems will just get worse.”
City Council members, reporters and other crime junkies are among True North’s 5,500 members. North Vent’s devotees also numbers in the thousands, with more than 200 new members in the past two weeks. Police detectives sift through the dozens of updates posted every day for any leads pointing to murder or robbery suspects.
One woman, who identified herself as an emergency room nurse at an area hospital, said that she occasionally checked the site to give her boss a heads up about incoming gunshot patients.
“I know what’s coming into the ER before the charge nurse because of this page,” she posted recently on the group’s page.
Anyone interested in crime occurring in Minneapolis neighborhoods is tuning in — even former cops like Jeffrey Jindra, a retired Minneapolis police sergeant who regularly posts on True North.
“The [police] give such vague information, it’s not worth talking to them anymore,” Jindra said. “People have more of a sense of what’s going on.”
Police ramp up social media
As independent Facebook groups continue to blossom, Minneapolis police have also ramped up their social media efforts and hired a videographer, in addition to recently appointing two new public information officers. Their policy is to disseminate information to the media “based on what we as a department believe the public needs to be informed of or situations where we are asking for the public’s help in identifying a suspect and/or alerting the public of a crime alert,” Sgt. Catherine Michal said in an e-mail. “Social media is the easiest way for the MPD to reach a lot of people in a short amount of time and keep them informed.”
Murphy, who started True North after having a falling out with the creators of a similar page, said he hopes that by shining a light on the area’s crime problem, city officials will do something about conditions that make some areas magnets for drug activity and prostitution.
He recently began posting reports detailing the week’s gun-related incidents — shootings, reports of shots fired, and activations by the city’s ShotSpotter network, which uses sensors to identify the location of gunshots — incidents, he contends, that get little mention in the local news. To make his point, he cited statistics showing that more people had been shot in north Minneapolis than all of those wounded by gunfire across the entire city at this time last year.
Critics say that the posts on True North and North Vent paint certain parts of the city with too broad of a brush, and give the impression that crime is reaching crisis proportions, even though data suggest that despite a recent spike in violence the city is still safer than it has been in years. Others argue that some of the comments posted on the page are racist.
“North Vent seems to be a place where predominantly white and middle-class people go to complain about where they live and talk about people of color,” said Felicia Perry, a local resident who runs her own design business.
She said that she was briefly a member of both North Vent and True North, the largest online neighborhood groups, but unsubscribed because she was disgusted by some of the content.
“I do recall just really thinking that this was a toxic place to be, especially for someone like me, who’s trying to better the community.”
‘We have our haters’
Murphy said his car was keyed last summer.
“We have our haters. There’s people who absolutely loathe me with every fiber of their being, because they think I’m worse than the people shooting up our neighborhoods,” Murphy said. “Most of our community, they’re apathetic, they just hope that this problem will go away. They don’t want to speak up.”
Officials caution that some posts contain incomplete or inaccurate information.
For example, a recent posting on True North, overheard on a scanner, about a man who had been spotted near Chicago Lake Liquors in south Minneapolis possibly carrying a machine gun, went uncorrected even after a dispatcher later changed the weapon’s description to a machete.
More honest conversations?
But Lisa Clemons says that such online networks give people a place to have honest conversations about inner-city crime, poverty and police-community relations.
Clemons, another former Minneapolis cop who recently joined the department’s volunteer crisis response team, said that she often posts about arrests of shooting suspects on her Facebook page, arguing that people have a right to know about crime in their neighborhoods.
“I’m glad that people in the community are listening to the scanners, and following up and asking questions,” she said.
Observers say that perceived bias in mainstream media outlets has only increased enthusiasm for social media sites like NextDoor, which encourage users to tell their own stories in their own words.
“The conversations we used to have around the water cooler at work, the conservations that we used to have on the block, we are doing those in social media groups,” said Peter Gloviczki, an assistant professor of communications at Coker College in South Carolina who wrote a book exploring the role of social media in journalism.
“They have an opportunity to engage with law enforcement and that can be beneficial, especially when we think about how do we build safer neighborhoods; how do we represent populations that haven’t necessarily always been represented in the media,” he said by telephone.
Many of the incidents posted may not have otherwise seen the light of day, some argue.
“There’s a lot more going on in the world out there than most people know,” said one of the most prolific local scanner buffs, who to protect her privacy preferred to be identified by her Twitter handle, @wwozzydo, where she frequently tweets updates. “There’s some sad things out there that never get reported.”
She said that thanks to technology, anyone with a smartphone or a reliable internet connection can listen to scanner traffic of law enforcement agencies across the state, from the comfort of their home. And residents have taken notice.
“I just want to thank the people that are monitoring scanners and posting on this page,” one man posted on the Minneapolis Scanner Facebook page. “It is great to know what is going on in [Minneapolis] as far as police calls.”