Starting July 2, Richmond police will encrypt all channels used for communication. While police chiefs say it's a necessary safety move, it takes away a tool journalists have relied on for decades.
You might not know it, but up until this point, anyone can listen to the police scanner through an app on your phone. But starting July 2, this will no longer be true. Historically, publicly available police scanner radio has allowed citizens, and, most importantly, news stations, to monitor urgent events of immediate danger -- as well as the behavior of law enforcement officers.
Police radio channels have always been public. Why? In the past, it's been argued that this information should be in the public domain, because police are publicly paid officials. Classified information is never revealed over the scanner (most of it's in code, and many utilize dual-networks for sensitive information), but you can hear what officers are doing and find out if there's a car accident on the interstate.
News agencies rely on this technology in particular for maintaining police accountability and ensuring the swift dissemination of public information. A 1997 article from the Society of Professional Journalists called police scanners "about as necessary in the newsroom as a pen and a notebook." Virtually every newsroom has a police scanner omnipresently chattering in the background. That way, if there's a car accident on the highway, news agencies can tweet that information out immediately. (That's how they get breaking news so fast.) It also allows TV news reporters to immediately pack up and hit the scene if there's an emergency situation happening, so the public can know about it ASAP.
However, police say that the press aren't the only ones listening. With the development of smartphone police scanner apps, officers say this information poses a threat. Richmond, Henrico, and Chesterfield County Police say it's an important move for officer safety.
In a joint statement by police departments in Richmond, Henrico, and Chesterfield County, police chiefs say they're changing the policy to maintain the privacy and safety of officers. The joint statement said they're closing off access to the public to ensure "that the dissemination of in-progress tactics and activities ... is limited to those whose mission is to resolve those events ..."
Meghan Ryne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition of Open Government, told the Times-Dispatch that she's concerned about the effects of this new policy.
"The press has historically had access to this information and has used it both to alert the public of emergencies -- so they can protect themselves and/or check on loved ones -- and to monitor police activity," Rhyne added. "Encrypting all of the channels compromises that relationship, meaning the public may not have timely access to information about emergencies."
A newsroom police scanner. (Courtesy of Rangecast)
Rhyne said that many cities already utilize two radio channels, one which is encrypted for transmitting private, tactical information, and another one that's publicly accessible. She said the officers can switch between these two channels at any time and that Richmond already utilizes such a dual-channel system.
Chesterfield Police Captain Wes Fertig told the press that having any channel publicly available still poses safety problems. "We do have historical examples of criminals using scanners and listening to police radio traffic ... We don't want officers attempting to switch channels during emergency situations, and instead want them focused on the life safety mission in front of them," Fertig said.
Police say they'll develop new ways to make this information available. In their joint statement, tri-county police said they'll be utilizing Twitter and social media channels in particular. Some departments have already created websites for monitoring police activity, such as Henrico County's Active Police Calls, which refreshes every five minutes. Chesterfield County has set up a similar site.
Rhyne said she hopes that law enforcement will follow through on its promise to keep this information publicly accessible.
"With now-limited access to monitor police in real time, combined with access to other kinds of recorded police data being limited, the public and press have fewer and fewer ways to hold law enforcement accountable," Rhyne told the Times-Dispatch. "Hopefully, police will ramp up their social media and press alerts to fill the vacuum."
Gregg Leslie, legal defense director at Reporters for Freedom of the Press, told the Verge he's still concerned. "There’s a lot of public good done by letting the media and the public know what first responders are up to, and it’s a shame that that could all go away," Leslie said.
What do you think about Richmond police's decision to encrypt radio channels? Do you think it's a good move for officer safety, or do you think it should be public information? Let us know in the comments.