By Sarah Lehr
Have you ever wondered how reporters know when to converge on the scene of a shooting or a fire or a car crash?
Typically it’s because they first heard something over a scanner.
Members of the public, however, are no longer able to hear the Campbell Police Department’s scanner activity via radio, computers or smartphones.
The department made the switch from an analog to a digital scanner last year. The new digital system includes the option to encrypt, or scramble, communication so that outsiders cannot listen in on dispatch.
Campbell Police Chief Dennis Puskarcik, who took office Jan. 6, said the department now encrypts all of its scanner communications, in part, because people who are looking to commit crimes often listen to the scanner to stay ahead of the police.
“We’d get a call about loud music, and they’d hear us over the scanner and turn the music off before we got there,” he said, giving an example.
Puskarcik also cited a desire to protect privacy, because officers might share sensitive information such as Social Security or driver’s license numbers over dispatch.
Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist for the Ohio American Civil Liberties Union, said he understands why law enforcement would encrypt while executing a search warrant, though he noted that police have always been able to go off the public scanner for covert operations.
Youngstown police, for example, still use an analog scanner without encryption but are able to “disengage” at times when sharing sensitive information. They are able to communicate confidentially with dispatchers via cellphones and the computers mounted in their cruisers.
Daniels added he also believes it is legitimate for police to encrypt in order to protect citizens’ personal security information.
“Our mantra at the ACLU is that public records are meant to keep an eye on the government, not to keep an eye on your neighbor,” he said.
Daniels is skeptical of the argument that scanner encryption enhances officer safety, adding that he hasn’t seen any evidence to support that assertion.
“When you start making the argument that anything over the scanner could compromise officer safety, there’s the potential for abuse and to define that very broadly,” he said. “More than ever, you have people interested in how police conduct their business. More transparency is a good thing.”
Encryption should be used narrowly, and it should be constrained by a formal written policy, Daniels said.
Puskarcik said Campbell police do not have a formal encryption policy, but he added that he would be interested in learning how other departments handle the issue.
Campbell’s new dispatch line functions as part of a digital trunk system, also used by Mahoning County, Boardman and Austintown. Youngstown is considering joining.
Canfield Police are in the process of transitioning to the new digital system. Canfield Police Chief Charles Colucci said he has not yet made a decision on encryption, but that he anticipates the department will encrypt selectively “when appropriate.”
Like Campbell, Boardman police and the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office encrypt all activity. Austintown police encrypt selectively, as outlined in a written policy. For example, the policy advises employees to “encode”, or encrypt, when sharing Social Security numbers or when responding to an active shooter situation. Austintown Police Chief Robert Gavalier said Austintown police use digital encryption in a way that is not much different from the way that dispatchers would occasionally go off the public scanner under the old analog system.
Puskarcik said it would be impractical for Campbell police to encrypt only some communication.
“It’s too much work,” he said, “to be turning it on and off again.”
Lynn Walsh, national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, believes that an ideal policy would allow police to encrypt only in select instances that correspond to specific exemptions outlined in public-records law.
“Information can be redacted,” she said. “That does not mean that the whole feed should be scrambled.”
She emphasized that police scanners enable reporters to fulfill their watchdog role, but said that the right to know should extend to all members of the public, not just journalists.
“These are people – police officers and members of law enforcement – that are paid for by the public,” she said. “They work for the public.”
Responsible journalists should not report solely based on scanner chatter without verification, Walsh said. She characterized scanner traffic as an essential tool toward responding to breaking news in a timely manner.
The ability of a journalist to witness news as it unfolds is not the same as piecing together what happened after the fact via records like police reports and 911 call recordings, Walsh noted.
In response to a question about the value of real-time scanner traffic, Pusckarcik said he would not answer any more questions about encryption.
“We’re encyrpted, and we’re going to stay encrypted,” Puskarcik said. “It’s a safety issue, and I’m not going to say nothing more about it.”
Though the Ohio Attorney General’s Office has not issued a formal opinion on scanner encryption, a spokeswoman said a live radio broadcast does not meet the definition of a public record under the Ohio Public Records Act because it is not a “fixed medium.” A recording of a radio broadcast does meet the definition.
Agents with the Ohio Attorney General’s Office use encryption selectively for covert operations.