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Home > SPJ News > Society Protests Ohio County's Encrypted Dispatching System

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Society Protests Ohio County's Encrypted Dispatching System

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
2/22/2001


Contacts: Ray Marcano, SPJ President, 937/225-2323 or rmarcano@spj.org; Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chairman, 406/542-4400 or ian@kpax.com

INDIANAPOLIS — Preventing news organizations and the public from hearing police, fire and EMS unit dispatches impedes the public’s right to know and the media’s role as a watchdog of the government, says the Society of Professional Journalists and its Cincinnati Pro Chapter.

Tim Bonfield, president of the Society’s Queen City (Cincinnati) Pro Chapter, recently sent a letter to Clermont County, Ohio, government officials protesting the county’s 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. … 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 residents’ 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, SPJ’s 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. It’s 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 public’s ability to know what’s 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 isn’t any need to take an additional step to further restrict information."


Feb. 15, 2001
Clermont County Commission
County Administration Building
101 E. Main St.
Batavia, OH 45103

To the commissioners,

This letter is written to inform you that the Cincinnati chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists strongly protests the recent adoption of an encrypted radio communication system for dispatching police, fire and EMS units in Clermont County.

News organizations play a vital role in American society as watchdogs of all manner of government activity, including law enforcement. Many news organizations rely heavily on police/emergency radio scanners to send reporters and photographers to the scenes of fires, crimes, natural disasters and other emergencies. Scanner traffic can alert the media to situations as routine as a traffic accident to as serious as a manhunt for a killer — yet all these police activities involve matters of legitimate, well-established public concern.

As professional journalists, we have deep concerns about encryption of police dispatch communications. We believe most police organizations already have the ability to quietly communicate sensitive or tactical information, such as officers surrounding the house of an armed suspect. 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.

Rather than open radio communication putting officers at risk, we are concerned that closing off dispatch information will make police, fire and other emergency services that much less accountable to the taxpayers who employ them.

Some Clermont County officials have promised to provide media access to encrypted communications that would otherwise not be available to the general public. While this policy may be seen as a compromise, SPJ supports keeping dispatch communications fully open to all members of the public.

We are concerned that small media organizations, students, and freelance reporters and photographers may not be able to afford new scanner equipment that can decode encrypted signals. We are concerned that special media access will mean denying access to people whom police or other government officials do not consider "legitimate" journalists, including media organizations they feel are too critical of their activities.

We remind Clermont County officials that the First Amendment and federal and state open records laws apply to all citizens, not just journalists. Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,
Tim Bonfield
President
Cincinnati SPJ

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