Nothing but static

Police radio encryption continues to hinder cops reporters
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AP Photo by Jacquelyn Martin

District of Columbia Police Chief Cathy Lanier said criminals were able to elude capture by listening to police scanners.

Try tuning into the police radio channel in Pasadena, Calif., and you’ll hear nothing but static.

On Jan. 7, the Pasadena Police Department completed a transition to encrypted radio communications that was seven years in the making. Pasadena is not alone. While police departments across the country have been steadily switching to encrypted radio communications for more than a decade, the trend has accelerated recently as cell phone apps like Scanner 911 have made public access to traditional unencrypted police radio communications easier than ever.

District of Columbia police chief Cathy Lanier testified at a city meeting in November that criminals — including groups responsible for a string of burglaries — had eluded capture by listening to police scanners and vacating the scene before police could arrive.

Yet, for journalists, not having access to police radio communications poses a threat to public safety reporting.

“The entire public safety news coverage system depends on scanners, and if scanners and scanner traffic is are no longer available to newsrooms then news reporting about crime, fire — it’s going to be very hit or miss,” said Terry Francke, general counsel at CaliforniansAware, a California open government organization.

No legal right 

Though access to police records varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction — California, the District of Columbia and Vermont allow access to many police records — police are not legally required to allow journalists or the public access to police radio communications.

There is no federal law that requires public access to police radio, and unless a state’s Freedom of Information law builds a strong case for disclosure of all police records, there is little legal action that can be taken.

“Unlike issues with access to records, [access to police radio] is not governed by state law,” Francke said. “You hear about these things on an incident-by-incident basis. It’s really up to [the police]. They have no duties to communicate these things.”

News organizations use police scanners not only as a way to gather information on crimes as they happen, but also play a necessary role in informing the public of traffic delays, such as accidents or demonstrations.

“Public safety and timely information are the keys to a successful partnership among law enforcement officials, the media and the public,” said Camille Edwards, vice president of NBC4 in Washington, D.C., in a statement made before city officials in November. “Excluding the public and our reporters and editors from this crucial flow of information will only undermine that partnership.”

However, many police departments — like the ones in D.C. and Pasadena — say that public access to police scanners, though it may provide important public safety information, poses a much bigger risk to the safety of officers and victims.

Names, addresses and other personal information about victims often are revealed on scanners. The devices also notify listeners where police are headed, giving criminals the opportunity to arm themselves before police arrive, Lanier said. Departments regard the encryption as a way to maintain safety for officers and victims of crimes.

“I have discs — literally — of these types of calls where the officers are the victims,” said Lt. Phlunte Riddle of the Pasadena Police Department. “When you have an open frequency all the victim’s information is out there, too. All that info’s on the air.”

Social media reports

Radio encryption means reporters will not be able to immediately notify the public of police activity in their area, and may have to do additional reporting to determine if there is an incident relating to public safety or public interest. In Burlington, Vt., where police radio communications have been encrypted for nearly two years, reporters call the police station once they learn of an incident via social media or other means.

“As social media works, they’re finding out information from different avenues then calling us up to confirm and learn more,” said Burlington Deputy Police Chief Andi Higbee. “I make myself available 24/7 to provide information.”

Many police departments have begun integrating social media as a way to inform the public of incidents. The Utica, N.Y., police department posts news releases on its Facebook page, including incident reports and mug shots. On the Facebook page for the Wethersfield, Conn., Police Department, officers answer questions about incidents and post public safety tips. The Baltimore Police Department posts information about violent crimes and missing persons to its Twitter account.

Gwen Crump, a spokeswoman for the D.C. police department, said the department has worked with D.C. media to keep the public informed of incidents.

“We have met with members of the media and having access to Citywide One [the only unencrypted digital channel] was one of the agreements, as well as using D.C. Crime Alerts within moments of the crime,” Crump said. “District commanders post serious crimes on the listservs. We feel this is working, as there is no lack of media at crime scenes. We also implemented a traffic desk within the Command Information Center to keep the media informed.”

The information provided by police may not come quickly enough for reporters, however. Officials in Washington, D.C., heard from members of the media in November regarding the police department’s move to encrypted radio in September 2011.

“We perform this public service work with the help and guidance of many public safety officials who are not always able to respond as quickly as they might like to media inquiries while an incident is occurring,” Edwards said. “And there often is an unacceptable delay of many hours or days before any official press release or notice can be issued to the media.”

What can be done?

Several jurisdictions have taken steps to aid media access to scanners and radio communications. In Santa Cruz, Calif., the police department has scanner applications for smart phones that allow users access to the digital radio communications and other police resources. The Greenwich, Conn., police department maintains an open scanner, although they have the ability to encrypt on a case-by-case basis.

The Pasadena Police Department said it understands why there is a need for media access to police radio communications, but for now, at least, they do not have a simple solution. Riddle said the department has looked into allowing certain airwaves to remain unencrypted for news media access. However, this would mean additional work and programming for every police radio in the Pasadena police force.

“We recognize the media has some real needs — we want to be sensitive to those needs without endangering our officers or victims,” she said. “But this is no easy task. In addition to the money, it’s a lot of work.”

In some cases, police departments that have compromised with the news media have later changed their minds about the practice. The Jacksonville, Fla., sheriff’s office ended a program that allowed members of the news media to lease scanners and have full access to police channels, citing budgetary reasons. It was replaced by an emergency response broadcast.

Still, for members of the media, these communications do not provide the timely information of police scanners and undercut the press’s ability to report information completely, accurately and timely.

“If it’s going to be complete, it’s going to be days or weeks for the information to come out,” Francke said.