By Thanksgiving, the public will no longer be able to listen in on police dispatches in Lancaster County.
County Commissioners on Tuesday directed Lancaster County-Wide Communications to encrypt police transmissions, blocking the public — and media — from hearing what’s going on in the county.
West Hempfield Township police Chief Mark Pugliese I, who heads the county chiefs association, says the change will protect police from ambushes and secure personal information about crime victims and witnesses.
Commissioners Dennis Stuckey and Joshua Parsons favored the move.
“We live in a changed and changing world,” Stuckey said. “Gone are the days when you can talk to a 15- or 20-year veteran who says he’s only had to pull his gun out twice.
“We have to be cognizant of that. Whenever I hear that there’s concern for the safety of police officers who put their lives on the line every day, I have to take that seriously.”
Commissioner Craig Lehman said he’s also concerned about police safety, but said officers may become further isolated from their communities if they decrease transparency.
He said police should compromise, encrypting public transmissions but giving news outlets access to those broadcasts.
Encryption won’t affect fire and EMS broadcasts.
Communications director Michael Weaver said converting the county’s 6,000-some police radios won’t cost anything except time.
The switchover probably won’t be made until November, he said.
A public vote was not required on the matter, Stuckey said. It’s an administrative decision, he said, but officials wanted to handle it in an open forum.
Lehman said someone who wants to ambush police is more likely to make a fake 911 call, not monitor police movements on a radio. He said encrypting transmissions could give officers a false sense of security.
Parsons said he shares Lehman’s concerns, but said he trusts the judgment of police chiefs when they say this is a safety issue.
“The fake 911 ambush scenario could happen no matter what we do today,” Parsons said. However, he said, encryption “does provide some percentage of safety.”
Pugliese defended the move by saying there have been “several incidents in the county where the public or the media interfered with investigations,” in some cases by getting to crime scenes more quickly than police.
Later, Pugliese said he doesn’t know of an instance when members of the media interfered at a crime scene.
Pugliese said police in Lancaster County are “going to have to change the way we do business” in order to keep information flowing.
However, he chided the media for being “in such a rush to get the news out” that it reports inaccurate information based on radio broadcasts. When police later release the facts, he said, “it appears that we’re trying to cover something up.”
Many police departments already used the CrimeWatch website to issue press releases, he said. Software also exists for an online mapping program that shows police dispatches without revealing addresses, he added; however, the maps typically run three to four hours behind real-time, he said.
Lehman said blocking police transmissions is “going to further isolate police ... and make police less safe if that (public) trust is lost.”
Some local police departments do “a really good job” of providing the media with timely information, he said. “Some departments, less so.”
Lehman said he would be open to a compromise that gives the media access to those broadcasts. Stuckey and Parsons agreed they would be interested in exploring that option in the future.
Pugliese said similar arrangements exist in other communities, but said “before we take a serious look at that, we would have to have a discussion about the ground rules.”
For instance, he said, would the media have access to all or some police channels? Who would pay for the radios needed to give the media that access?
“It has been done,” he said. “It’s not a common practice, but it is out there.”
He didn’t say if he would support a compromise solution.
Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said earlier this month that the proposal will prevent news agencies from staying on top of breaking news.
Media organizations “have used emergency radio transmissions for decades without incident to keep the public informed about emergency situations in the community,” she said.