For editors and reporters, access to the police scanner is an essential — and immediate — source of information for covering breaking news, whether it’s a massive fire raging in a community or rescuers trying to find a child swept away in a stream.

That access is under threat in California now that dozens of law enforcement agencies, including the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, have made the decision to fully encrypt their communications based on a directive. of the agency whose statewide computer network provides criminal histories, driver records and other public safety information.

The sheriff’s department has put their alternative to scanners on a website which updates every four minutes as calls arrive to dispatch. It describes the nature of the call, the location and assigns a number to the call.

This reporter saw a “suspicious person” call from Encinitas appear on the screen and then disappear shortly after. It is not known what happened during the call. Clearly the website does not provide the immediate information that a scanner would provide.

And therein lies the problem, say reporters across the state and here in San Diego.

If there is a breaking story and you as a journalist or citizen are trying to find out more, the website does not help. For example, you and your neighbors wonder if the “suspicious person” is the same one who used to work in your neighborhood. What does it look like? What is he wearing? Is he in the car? How can you find out more on a Sunday night or early weekday morning from the sheriff’s department?

Or maybe you want to know something as simple as why helicopters fly over your neighborhood. Scanner traffic would tell you; the website would not provide any details.

I can tell you that the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department appreciates our communication with members of the press and the public. We want to keep them informed.

– Lt. Amber Baggs, Director of Media Relations for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department

Nevertheless, the ministry believes that this new link is an appropriate substitute for detailed information in real time.

“I can tell you that the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department appreciates our communication with members of the press and the public,” said Lt. Amber Baggs, director of media relations for the Sheriff’s Department. “We want to keep them informed.”

For 80 years, information transmitted via scanners has increased the transparency and accountability of law enforcement to both the public and the media.

The California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System opened the door to this move to encrypt communications in late 2020 when it said law enforcement must protect “identifying information” during transmission. But the agencies that block access block everything, not just the “credentials” required by the directive.

The California News Publishers Association said “some law enforcement agencies have used this as justification to encrypt all radio transmissions, cutting off necessary transparency.”

This, in turn, led to a pushback from media organizations and the introduction of state Senate Bill 1000, known as the Public’s Right to Police Radio Communications Act. Sen. Josh Becker, D-San Mateo, said he introduced the bill because “now is not the time to reduce public access to police activities.”

“Access to information regarding police activity is not an ‘operational change’ that should be made without input from the public, the media or municipal, county and state elected officials,” said Becker said.

He said passage of his bill was key to restoring the public’s ability to listen to law enforcement scanners. If approved, the legislation would allow media and the public access from January 1, 2023 to police communications as long as it does not reveal undercover operations or include confidential information.

The bill authorized the Senate Public Safety Committee and now heads to supply. The region has one legislator who sits on this influential committee, Sen. Brian Jones, R-San Diego. You can follow the evolution of the invoice in line.

Local media representatives are united in their opposition to encrypted communications and support Becker’s legislation.

Cliff Albert, a 41-year veteran in the local news business, said encryption would “do the public a disservice”.

Albert, who is director of information at 600 KOGO Newsradiosaid the encryption “would make it more difficult for the community not only to be properly and timely informed, but it would also be more difficult to alert members of the public to potentially dangerous situations that they need to be aware of.”

There is simply no legitimate reason for our sheriff to remove all scanner communications from the public.

— Miriam Raftery, editor of East County magazine

Miriam Raftery, editor of the online news site East County Magazineaccepted.

“There is simply no legitimate reason for our sheriff to remove all scanner communications from the public,” she said.

Raftery noted that smaller police departments such as La Mesa and El Cajon encrypted all communications, while the San Diego Police Department transferred only private information to a separate secure channel and kept the rest available.

She complained that the sheriff’s department has the ability to use separate secure channels if needed, but chose not to.

Paul Krueger, recently retired NBC 7 producer, said: ‘I support any legislation that protects the ability of the media – and the public – to monitor law enforcement activities without endangering our police and fire officials. As a longtime local journalist who has worked in both print and broadcast media, I know how much working journalists need access to police and fire to keep the public informed. .

Conscious Californians and his deputy general counsel, Shaila Nathu, wrote in support of the bill because “access to police radio communications is an essential tool in the fight for police transparency and accountability. The SB 1000 proactively demands that these tools be accessible to the press and the public.

Raftery agreed, saying: “While I agree that the personal details of victims should be kept confidential, this should not be used as an excuse to prevent press and public access to the vast majority of scanner traffic. “.

JW August is a longtime broadcast and digital journalist in San Diego. He sits on the board of Californians Aware.

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