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A move by many police departments across the country to communicate over digital radio has left cop reporters to tune…

A move by many police departments across the country to communicate over digital radio has left cop reporters to tune in nothing but static

From the Winter 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 45.

By Catherine J. Cameron

The urgent voices of dispatchers and emergency personnel intermingled with the monotonous whir of radio static are disappearing in newsrooms. The cub reporter running down to the local house fire after hearing a dispatcher send out the fire trucks may go the way of the Linotype.

Emergency dispatchers are moving to new technology that makes it more difficult for reporters to know what is going on with their local emergency personnel the moment it happens.

Since the 1930s, reporters have relied on analog radios and police scanners to alert them to crimes, fires and other emergencies. For most of the last 70 years, a reporter could tune into police transmissions on the same radio frequency to hear what the police were doing.

However, with time and increased privacy concerns, new technology has made it more difficult for reporters and the public to access emergency communications.

The good news is that both sides have benefitted from the technological advances. With each new technology inhibiting access, someone has countered with newer technology to allow access again. However, if advocates in Congress have their way, digital radio transmissions may be the end of the road for reporters and scanner hobbyists. The communications of police and other emergency personnel may be cut off from public access.

Instead of sending analog voice signals over the public airwaves, municipalities are sending digital signals over those same airwaves. A computer will have changed the signals into zeros and ones prior to their transmission over the public airwaves. If anyone with a normal radio picks up these codes, all they will hear is a hiss. In order to monitor these transmissions, one needs a digital radio.

“The circuitry of the radio is different between analog and digital,” said Stan Waghalter, who formerly worked as a radio and television news reporter and was a Tandy Corporation employee. “So you have to have a digital radio to pick up digital transmissions.”

But digital radios may be hard to come by if you are not an emergency services provider. According to a Motorola representative, the company does not sell digital radios through its retail dealers. The radios must be purchased directly from Motorola. In practice, this may mean these radios are unobtainable. Companies that outfit emergency personnel with digital radios systems are reluctant to sell radios to individuals who try to monitor the police radios.

“Motorola calls its system the Astro digital and in 99.9 percent of the markets, the only system in that market that is an Astro digital system will be a police system,” said Doug Cummings, a crime reporter for WGN Radio in Chicago. “So if you come in and ask to buy an Astro digital radio, they think you want to listen to the police. Motorola just won’t do it.”

Digital radios are also expensive. Cindy Swirko, a reporter with the Gainesville (Fla.) Sun, found this out first-hand when the local emergency personnel decided to make the switch to digital transmissions.

“I’ve been told that it costs anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 to buy one of these radios,” Swirko said.

The cost of the radio was not the only roadblock for Swirko. Even with a radio, it is necessary to have the radio programmed so that it can pick up the digital communications. As Swirko and the newspaper’s attorney understood it, if they could get a radio and the police would give them the codes they use to program their radios, then the police communications could be monitored again. The police disagreed.

“Florida has a really good public records law and our position was that if there was some record in the agency that has a list of these codes, then they would have to release them under the Florida public records law. But when I brought it up in the meeting, the technical side said there weren’t actually codes,” said Rachel Fugate, an attorney for the Gainesville Sun.

Fugate and Swirko had the right idea, but perhaps used incorrect terminology. The representative from Motorola said that the police have to program their radios to pick up each other’s signals. If they were to give out these programming codes, someone with a digital radio could indeed monitor police communications.

“This is normally not done,” he said. “The whole purpose of going to (digital) is because of the additional protection.”

Fugate said the newspaper reached a compromise with emergency personnel, and now Swirko can cover her beat.

The Gainesville Sun and emergency personnel came to an agreement that allows the newspaper to rent radios for $200 to $300 a month from the local utility company. The radios are pre-programmed by police so that the media can pick up some police channels. However, some channels will be off-limits. Narcotics and surveillance channels are just two of the channels that the radios will not be programmed to pick up.

“These agreements are what a lot of departments are doing,” Cummings said.

“But there are problems with that. What you won’t get is the stuff you want, which is the homicide investigations and stuff like that, because they will switch to another channel,” the radio reporter said. “But even if you could listen to it, it’s boring as it can possibly be. I’ve listened to ATF stations following a chase and all you hear is ‘the guy’s turning left, he’s pulling in the parking lot.’ All it does is tell you something is going on.”

Much of the decision to enter a compact with emergency departments depends on the state and how likely the laws are to allow access to police records and communications. For instance, in Illinois, where access laws contain many police record exemptions, some local reporters have accepted the denial of access.

“There’s nothing I can do. There is absolutely nothing that I can do,” Cummings, the Chicago reporter, said. “There have been so many rules and regulations enacted to keep the media from doing their job.”

Reporters hope someone will develop a counter-technology to thwart the efforts by police to close off access through switching to digital radios. The representative at Motorola agreed that a digital scanner would be a technologocal possibility, but he said that if the digital signal was encrypted by further computer programming then it would be impossible for anyone to listen to it without the permission of emergency personnel.

Even if a digital scanner were available, it might become illegal to use the technology if a bill in Congress makes its way into law. A bill following several other legislative attempts to restrict access to digital transmissions, specifically cellular phone and paging transmissions, passed the House 403-3 in the last Congress, although it died in the Senate. (H.R. 514)

That bill would have prohibited the Federal Communications Commission from authorizing equipment that can monitor cellular phone and paging frequencies. Many emergency personnel share the same frequencies used by cellular phone companies, making these transmissions off limits to scanners. The effect of the continued legislative attempts to make it more difficult to monitor digital transmissions may ultimately impede the development and sale of digital scanners in the United States.

The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), plans to introduce it in the 107th Congress, according to her staff spokesman.

“Congress is pressuring the FCC not to even certify any digital scanner plans that come down the pike, which would in essence keep digital scanners off the market,” Waghalter, the former reporter who previously worked at Tandy, said.

Until the development of a digital scanner that the FCC permits for sale in the United States, the only options for reporters may be to make agreements with emergency personnel. As Swirko found out, it is beneficial to at least challenge a complete denial of access.

“After that initial meeting, when they said we won’t allow media to have access, we called right then to attorneys and they relented without much of a fight,” Swirko said. “I think they were just trying to see if we would fight it and they probably knew all along if the media contest this, they had no legal choice but to give them some access.”