By Thanksgiving, the public will no longer be able to listen in on police dispatches in Lancaster County, as LNP reported last week. The Lancaster 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, who heads the county police chiefs association, says the change will protect police from ambushes and secure personal information about crime victims and witnesses.
Police officers have a dangerous, difficult job — more difficult and dangerous than most of us can probably imagine.
And we wouldn’t support any measure that would make life more perilous for a police officer.
But some sort of balance between protecting officers and ensuring the public’s right to information must be struck.
We understand the other side of the argument.
“We live in a changed and changing world,” Commissioner Dennis Stuckey told LNP. “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.”
Pugliese also said 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.
But, as LNP staff writer Tom Knapp reported, Pugliese couldn’t point to an instance when members of the media interfered at a crime scene.
What about an ambush?
As Commissioner Josh Parsons, who supports encryption, said, “The fake 911 ambush scenario could happen no matter what we do today.” However, he said, encryption “does provide some percentage of safety.”
Pugliese was off-base when he scolded the media for being “in such a rush to get the news out.” That’s the media’s job, especially when it comes to a public safety issue.
The fact of the matter is — and this is not a criticism — law enforcement relies on the media when it’s convenient.
When police are hunting a fugitive, they ask the media to post a photo of the suspect. When prosecutors announce a major conviction, they call a news conference.
Come November, when the media wants to hear what police are doing in the community — silence.
So, the message seems to be that the media and public are to be kept out of the loop until further notice. We will be informed strictly on a need-to-know basis.
There’s no evidence that radio transmissions have made policing more dangerous or more difficult.
Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, told LNP that media organizations “have used emergency radio transmissions for decades without incident to keep the public informed about emergency situations in the community.”
As Knapp reported, 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.
Lehman is correct. Encryption will limit transparency and serve as an obstacle to the media. And, as he pointed out, less transparency breeds mistrust and suspicion. That’s the last thing anyone — including police — needs.
Lehman suggested a compromise: Encrypt public transmissions, but give news outlets access.
The commissioners and the county police chiefs should give this serious consideration, though we don’t believe the public should be shut out either.
From the media’s standpoint, radio silence will only make a reporter’s job more difficult and very well could, in turn, limit the public’s access to information.
In an emergency situation, and you can imagine any number of them — natural disaster, active shooter, fire —the media needs to work with law enforcement to keep the public informed. In such situations, media outlets monitor radio transmissions for information and logistics. Encrypting such transmissions would not be in the best interest of the public.
And Lehman said blocking transmissions might actually make police less safe if public trust is lost.
The decision to encrypt was administrative and did not require a vote.
We urge the commissioners to reconsider this order and, at the very least, seek a compromise.
This is not about getting to the crime scene first.
We’re big fans of transparency here because when it begins to erode, we’re all in trouble.