Contacts: Ray Marcano, SPJ President, 937/225-2323 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chairman, 406/542-4400 or email@example.com
INDIANAPOLIS ó Preventing news organizations and the public from hearing police, fire and EMS unit dispatches impedes the publicís right to know and the mediaís role as a watchdog of the government, says the Society of Professional Journalists and its Cincinnati Pro Chapter.
Tim Bonfield, president of the Societyís Queen City (Cincinnati) Pro Chapter, recently sent a letter to Clermont County, Ohio, government officials protesting the countyís implementation of a new $12 million, 800 MHz encrypted radio communication system. The new system prevents the public and the media from hearing any dispatch communication on a scanner. Hamilton County, Ohio, also has planned to implement an encrypted communications system in the next few years.
"Scanner traffic can alert the media to situations as routine as a traffic accident to as serious as a manhunt for a killer," Bonfield wrote. "We believe most police organizations already have the ability to quietly communicate sensitive or tactical information. Ö We challenge law enforcement agencies in Clermont County, and others that may be considering similar policies, to demonstrate how public scanners have impeded law enforcement and to justify why these concerns would outweigh the long-established public interest in maintaining openness in government activities."
Law enforcement officials argue that open radio communications endanger officers and allow suspects to hear law enforcement tactics firsthand. The Society, however, believes that closing dispatch information makes police, fire and emergency services less accountable to taxpayers and impedes residentsí right to know about matters of public interest.
"When a fire or gas leak or bank robbery or toxic spill or highway accident occurs, the information chain is pretty clear: from police radio to scanner to newsroom to the public," said Ian Marquand, SPJís Freedom of Information Committee chairman and special projects coordinator at KPAX-TV in Montana. "Clermont County apparently wants to destroy that chain by making police communications secret. Itís an extreme reaction that I fear also could make police less accountable to the public."
Clermont County officials have vowed to provide media access to encrypted communications that the public cannot hear. The Society, however, contends that open, public communication is the best forum for dispatches because special privileges will allow government officials to deny access to any organization they choose. SPJ also believes that many small media organizations, student journalists, photographers and free-lancers will not be able to afford new scanner equipment to decode the encrypted transmissions.
"Government agencies should be in the business of informing the public, not hiding information from it," said Ray Marcano, SPJ president and assistant managing editor for production at the Dayton Daily News. "Blocking communications seriously restricts the publicís ability to know whatís happening in its community. Authorities are already adept at hiding sensitive information, like the locations of raids that could endanger the lives of officers. There isnít any need to take an additional step to further restrict information."