They make their living listening to the night.
Screams echo from an apartment. A car smashes into a bus. A man is discovered without vital signs. Another is robbed at gunpoint.
“Any time you hear something about a gun, you take note because it could escalate,” Victor Biro says from the cab of an SUV littered with coffee cups, camera equipment, radios and clothes.
“And if someone is found with no vital signs, you always wait to hear if it’s a murder.”
Biro is a freelance photojournalist, and one of the last of his kind. After the city’s staff photographers have gone to bed, you’ll find Biro in his truck, listening to police, fire and EMS communications on radio scanners so he can chase the news as it happens.
People call them stringers, nightcrawlers (as in Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in a movie of the same name), ambulance chasers and vultures. They used to be common; now, there are only a handful of people doing this in the GTA. But when the Toronto Police Service switches from its old analogue radio system to fully encrypted digital communications this spring, people like Biro may very well become a thing of the past.
“The scanners are my pipeline to what’s happening,” Biro says. “Once they go encrypted, I’ll be in the dark.”
Shootings, mangled car wrecks, raging infernos — Biro’s chased them all. It’s a lean existence of high costs, tight deadlines, intense competition and dwindling rewards. It’s also a life that Biro gave up a cushy nine-to-five telecommunications job for four years ago.
“I went from having a six-figure income to a low five-figure income,” he says, while sucking on a cigarette. “My wife says that she’s never seen me happier in a job.”
The radios keep buzzing on this unseasonably warm Saturday night in January.
Calls come in about rowdy drunks and domestic assaults. They’re not worth rushing to, Biro says. Too commonplace. And car accidents only pay if someone dies or gets seriously hurt. If you’re too far away from the scene of a violent crime or accident, Biro says you’re better off positioning yourself at Sunnybrook or St. Michael’s Hospital, the city’s major trauma centres, to get photos of the victim being rushed from an ambulance.
“You can’t chase every call in a city this size,” Biro says. “The tone of the dispatcher’s voice or the officer’s voice is going to give you an indication of what kind of import they attach to the call.”
Then one comes in from Scarborough. A man’s been stabbed in the chest. Biro turns up the volume.
The victim is conscious, an excited dispatcher says. He’s not co-operating with police. Blood is bubbling from his lungs. Biro flicks his cigarette out of the window.
FOR DECADES, anyone who wants to has been able to eavesdrop on Toronto police radio communications. All it takes is a scanner: an easy-to-acquire device that automatically cycles through multiple radio frequencies. Such devices, which only receive transmissions, are perfectly legal in Canada. You can even find smartphone apps that air near-simultaneous streams of police radio chatter.
The project to replace the Toronto Police Service’s existing analogue radios with encrypted digital radio technology has taken more than five years to implement, at a cost of $35.5 million. According to Mark Pugash, the Toronto Police Service’s director of corporate communications, this new encrypted communications system will be fully operational by May, forever shutting out eavesdroppers.
“Operational integrity and security is the primary motivation,” Pugash says. “This is a trend that has been taking place for some considerable time in policing, nationally and internationally.”
In a nutshell, the police don’t want criminals to be able to track their movements. They also don’t want people to overhear the personal information (criminal records, etc.) that’s read over the air. The city’s fire and emergency medical services will also migrate to the new digital radio system this year, though spokespeople from both services say that their channels will remain unencrypted — for now.
Encrypted radios digitally scramble voices so that only devices specifically programmed to decode those voices can receive and send transmissions. In Toronto, units such as the Emergency Task Force (ETF) already use encrypted radios. Canada’sRadiocommunication Act makes unauthorized decoding of encrypted communications punishable with fines of up to $75,000 and a maximum prison sentence of one year.
Once encryption goes into effect, Pugash says, Toronto police will primarily keep the media and public up-to-date through the Toronto Police Operations Centre Twitter account.
“We will not be able to duplicate everything that people got by eavesdropping on the radios — that’s simply not possible,” Pugash says. “There are those who feel that they have a right to eavesdrop on our communications. I have to confess, I’ve never understood where that right comes from, if indeed it exists.”
Jack Summers, the purchasing and marketing manager at North York’s Radioworld (the country’s largest scanner reseller), says that encryption will only shut out legitimate scanner users.
“There is, I believe, an underground market out there,” Summers says of illegal eavesdropping equipment. “Anything that is encrypted can be cracked.”
Numerous police forces in the province already use encrypted radios, including those in Windsor, London, Guelph, Hamilton, Peterborough and the regions of Niagara, Halton, York, Durham and Peel. With the addition of Toronto this year, a near-contiguous swath of southern Ontario that’s home to more than 7.6 million people will be covered in a blanket of radio silence.
ALL NIGHT THERE’S been chatter from Yonge and Finch. A man is found without vital signs in a high-end condominium; another man, armed with a knife, is barricaded inside a subway station.
Biro quickly snaps a few photos of the Scarborough stabbing victim being bundled into an ambulance, before zipping uptown.
Biro is wiry and energetic, with the flashing moods of a schoolboy: excitement to boredom to annoyance to silly humour.
He’s out most nights from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. He says most of his grey hair came in after he started working this job.
“Please, please, please,” Biro says as he barrels towards an intersection where a pedestrian signal is counting down.
At least a dozen police cruisers surround a cluster of condos that overlook Finch station. The road that leads to the buildings is sealed with police tape. Two police officers man the barricade, arguing with residents who want to get home.
“You can’t cross,” one of the officers tells an agitated woman. “There’s a police investigation.”
“What kind of investigation?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“I need to get home.”
“Sorry ma’am, you can’t.”
“But my son is home alone!”
“What are you doing leaving him home alone?”
Behind the tape, we can see more cruisers, three ambulances and several ETF vehicles. Biro keeps a handheld scanner on him. The ETF are negotiating a surrender inside the station. Biro thinks the subway incident and condo death are related. The lobby of one of the buildings is filled with cops.
“Let’s see if there’s another way around.”
We skirt the buildings on foot, eventually finding a walkway that leads to a taped-off subway entrance at the end of the barricaded street. An ambulance stretcher waits outside its doors. Biro guesses that’s where the suspect is holed up.
Other cameramen arrive to stake out the subway entrance. There’s a CP24 cameraman, then two freelancers who shoot video for outlets like Global and CBC. They all know each other from chasing the news at night. Then another photographer arrives. He’s young — only 23. Biro swears under his breath. Competition.
The only local outlets that regularly buy spot news photos, Biro says, are the Star, Metro, the Toronto Sun and Metroland papers like the North York Mirror. National papers might bite if something is really big. Same goes for The Canadian Press wire service. A news photo can fetch anywhere from $40 to $150, but media outlets usually only buy one per story. With the arrival of this other photojournalist, Biro’s chances of getting something published from this scene just got cut in half.
“Let’s get out of here,” Biro says. “We’ll get back in the car and listen to the scanners. If something else happens, we’ll be the first on the scene.”
Biro snaps a few more shots at Yonge and Finch before we hit the road. The Toronto Police issue no tweets about the incident while we’re there.
York and Peel regional police forces both encrypted their communications in 2014. Since then, Biro says, the media have become completely dependent on their Twitter accounts to know about calls. Biro says there are often serious lags between events and tweets. Some incidents, he says, aren’t tweeted about at all.
“You tend to hear about their stuff way after the fact,” Biro says. “And you certainly don’t hear about anything that could be embarrassing to them … Once the [Toronto] police go encrypted, the ability to report on their conduct is going to disappear.”
With the radios buzzing, Biro selects and edits the night’s photos on his laptop from the Yorkdale parking lot. He occasionally checks Twitter and calls the other five or so photographers and videographers who make their living chasing the GTA’s night news to see what’s happening in the city.
When he’s done edits and captions, he sends them out via a modem in his car. Only Metro bites. One photo sold.
Just after 2 a.m., another call comes in from Scarborough. Something about a car being torched. Biro closes his laptop and rushes to the scene.
By the time we arrive, firefighters have put out the blaze. A tow truck, having heard the same call on its scanner, waits to remove the vehicle. Biro snaps a few shots of the blackened car, knowing that they’ll probably never get published.
Biro rejects the idea that he profiteers on tragedy; that he makes a living by stealing glimpses of people at their most broken and vulnerable.
“I bristle at the idea of being perceived as a vulture or an ambulance chaser, because it’s about the motivation,” he says. “I want to get a picture that tells the urgency and importance of the story. I don’t want to shoot another picture of a body on the ground.”
The Regina solution
Last year, representatives from the city’s leading media outlets met with Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair to discuss ways that they could continue monitoring police communications after encryption goes into effect. Their suggestions were largely borrowed from Regina.
The Regina Police Service switched to encrypted digital radios in 2003. At the time, the city’s major media organizations were invited to purchase digital radios specially programmed by the police with the necessary encryption keys. Media that opted to purchase these radios were first required to sign a contract that outlined how the radios would be used and serviced. Police and media in the city saw it as a win-win situation.
“We’re not quite ready to turn off the tap,” Regina police spokesperson Elizabeth Popowich says. “On a very practical level, if you go silent, then your phone will ring a lot with, ‘I hear a siren! What happening?’ Right? We had always known that the media would listen to our main dispatch channel, and why wouldn’t we continue it?”
A Regina-type solution for Toronto, however, was ultimately rejected by the chief — even after it was suggested, Pugash adds, that only “serious” news organizations be eligible to receive such radios.
“I’m not sure I understand what the definition of a ‘serious’ news organization is,” Pugash says. “How do you give favourable treatment to some at the expense of others?”