Tweeting the Beat

Yesterday was a relatively quiet day in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, judging from the calls that came over the police radio scanner. A man fell out of a car at a Target and began twitching. A kid pulled a fire alarm at Washington School. Another man had a choking episode in a restaurant. All these were posted by the Twitter account @SheboyganScan, which since 2009 has been tirelessly documenting police radio chatter in the Eastern Wisconsin town of about 50,000 people. The New Inquiry caught up with the anonymous Sheboygan citizen who tracks the seedy side of their town in 140-­character bulletins.

The New Inquiry: Who are you?

Sheboygan Scanner: I am a chronically unemployed person living in Sheboygan County.

TNI: What’s the history of Sheboygan Scanner? When did you start listening to the police scanner, and why did you start to tweet what you heard?

SS: I got my first scanner for Christmas in 2004. I took it out of the box, put in batteries, turned it on, and heard a plane crash! I didn’t listen to it too much, but I noticed that a lot of interesting things never showed up in our local paper, which is woefully inadequate. In February 2009, I heard a call about an old woman who was found dead outside an assisted-living facility, possibly due to exposure. There was nothing about it in any local news sources. Nada. I started on Twitter soon after that. I added an RSS feed to Facebook a year or so ago, though I kind of regret that because I have to spend an inordinate amount of time refereeing the poo-flingers that show up.

TNI: You’re very prolific—since you started you’ve posted over 45,000 tweets. How do you manage to keep up with the ­scanner?

SS: It’s not that difficult. I keep the scanner on while I’m doing everyday activities, and I almost always have a computer nearby. Two at once during the day, actually. So I usually have it on all day unless I’m out of the county or running errands.

TNI: What have you learned about Sheboygan through the scanner?

SS: People here drink too much and aren’t fazed by drunk driving penalties. It’s part of the culture. Because what else are you going to do when it’s 10 below and the Packers just lost?

TNI: With reports like “dog wants to go to school,” your feed often takes on a surreal quality. Is Sheboygan weirder than other cities?

SS: Not at all. I haven’t heard scanners in other places, but I’ve lived in five major metropolitan areas across the country, and I don’t think there’s anything too unique about Sheboygan.

TNI: What’s the strangest thing you’ve heard come in over the ­scanner?

SS: Probably the man who created a disturbance because he was angry about an Italian restaurant serving Italian food. It also came out that he tends to sit and watch the seagulls, but he does not like seagulls.

TNI: Your scanner has become sort of a sensation on the Internet. You’ve been written about by BuzzFeed and earned a following far outside Sheboygan. Were you surprised when that happened?

SS: Um, well, no. Not really. Most of the humor is there for my own entertainment, and I’m not surprised that some people outside the area might find it amusing.

TNI: You’re not the only scanner on social media. I read an interview with the proprietor of the Baraboo scanner Facebook Page, where he criticized you for writing “mocking” posts. How do you feel about that characterization?

SS: Yes, of course I try to be humorous. I’m usually respectful, but some people just need to be mocked. I also remove offensive Facebook comments on a regular basis, and even ban the worst offenders, but I don’t believe in being a martinet when it comes to censorship on a public forum. I’d like to know exactly what the Baraboo guy found so offensive.

TNI: What’s your relationship with the the Sheboygan police? Are they aware of the feed?

SS: I’m sure they’re aware of it. One dispatcher contacted me on Twitter, and didn’t express any sort of disapproval. I do try to stay on their good side.

TNI: How has the account changed since you started it?

SS: Not much. Maybe the writing style, and I leave more things out now, such as runaways and nonemergency transports from nursing homes.

TNI: Is there anything that comes in over the scanner you won’t tweet?

SS: Basic identifying information, block information about sexual assaults, etc. Commonsense types of things. I try to be more restrictive with information when children are involved. I’ve also stopped tweeting about suicidal people because the comments on Facebook tend to be hostile and rude, and it’s really not something that people need to know about.

TNI: What’s your avatar a picture of? I’ve been wondering forever.

SS: It’s supposed to be a bratwurst. They’re really big around here. I used to have a much nicer looking one on Twitter, but a local pest reported a DMCA violation, and it was yanked without question. This one is public domain. n