As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Carter Walker reported Wednesday, Lancaster County residents might soon have access to police communications, which have been restricted for the past two-and-a-half years. “In response to the George Floyd protests, County Commissioner Craig Lehman ... proposed reversing a 2017 decision to restrict public access to the system, which he voted against,” Walker wrote. The matter could go to the three-member Lancaster County Board of Commissioners for a vote in early August.
It’s incredibly sad that it took the death of George Floyd and the impassioned worldwide Black Lives Matter demonstrations to bring the issue of police radio communications back into the local spotlight.
And it’s odd that a 2019 clash between the county commissioners and then-District Attorney Craig Stedman might provide the impetus for the swing vote needed to once again provide public access to police communications.
But such action would be a victory for public, no matter the winding path it takes.
So we urge the county commissioners to vote this summer to reverse their 2017 decision to encrypt police transmissions, which took effect in February 2018.
We strongly opposed that decision. Local police chiefs said then that encryption of communications protects both police officers and victims. But some in emergency medical services said blocking radio transmissions might dangerously limit their situational awareness when arriving at active crime scenes.
For this board, the issue was then, and remains, one of transparency and accountability. Those principles are even more urgent now, with the ongoing push to reform policing to eliminate brutality and systemic racism from law enforcement.
Lancaster County, unfortunately, was not alone in its 2017 move toward encryption. Nationally, many police departments have moved in the direction of secrecy in recent years.
“(It’s) a trend driven in part by fear that bad guys and terrorists need to do little more nowadays than download a police-scanning app to get all the intelligence they need on what police are doing and where,” The Washington Post reported in 2018. And the Columbia Journalism Review noted in 2019 that the growing ease and affordability of encryption has also been a factor.
We fully understand that there must be some balance between protecting both police officers and the privacy of victims — while also ensuring the public's right to information. But there’s also this: There’s no evidence that open radio transmissions have made policing more dangerous or more difficult.
Media organizations “have used emergency radio transmissions for decades without incident to keep the public informed about emergency situations in the community,” Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, told LNP | LancasterOnline in 2017.
What might be dangerous, we believe, is continuing to further insulate law enforcement from the communities it serves. Encrypted radio chatter worsens that divide.
“Less transparency breeds mistrust and suspicion,” we wrote in 2017. “That’s the last thing anyone — including police — needs.”
In a serious emergency — natural disaster, spreading fire, etc. — the media must work closely and quickly with law enforcement to help keep the public informed. To that end, the LNP | LancasterOnline newsroom — prior to February 2018 — would monitor police transmissions for information and use the information judiciously in the interest of the public’s need to know.
Lehman believes the decision to stop encrypting transmissions should be based off a simple and necessary idea: “I’m a firm believer that transparency is foundational to any reform, and that includes police reform,” he said.
Commissioner Josh Parsons, who voted — narrowly, he said — for encryption in 2017 “said he is open to changing his vote, possibly tipping the scales in favor of opening the system for public listening,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Walker reported.
Parsons said his 2017 decision hinged on agreeing with the Lancaster County Chiefs of Police Association’s recommendation in favor of encryption. But he now says that stance “was based largely on the chiefs’ credibility and on the assumption that they were acting in good faith. ... That trust has been broken.”
Parsons is referring to last year’s fight over the disclosure of Lancaster County drug task force forfeiture records that involved the commissioners, Stedman and LNP | LancasterOnline. Amid that oft-acrimonious monthslong dispute, the Lancaster County Chiefs of Police Association criticized the county commissioners and even sent a letter accusing Parsons of misusing his position, Walker reported.
“They should have been supporting our fight for ethical behavior, not opposing it,” Parsons said last week of the police chiefs.
And so Parsons might now turn out to be the deciding vote on whether the encryption continues here.
The battle over drug forfeiture records was fundamentally about transparency and accountability. This matter is, too. Eliminating encryption would be a big win for the public and a needed step toward police reform.