It has been a staple in every newsroom – a police scanner, usually situated at the desk of the crime reporter, squawking out officers’ communications as they responded to calls. Reporters tuning in would hear police responses in progress.
The police scanner has offered unfiltered, real-time communications in the course of day-to-day police activity. It reveals the unvarnished truth, unsusceptible to spin or cover-up.
In a short time, these communications for the media and general public will be no more. A state Department of Justice mandate dictates that information such as a person’s name can no longer be broadcast over scanners. Two alternatives are left to police departments: encrypt the transmissions or open an additional radio channel for disseminating private information. Citing additional staff time for the latter alternative, Los Altos is opting to encrypt the regular police scanner communications. Los Altos and Mountain View will be among the last South Bay cities to move to encrypted transmissions when they make the switch in March.
On its surface, the switch doesn’t seem like a big deal. Most people, even most reporters, aren’t using scanners, much less paying attention. And the reasons for encryption – preventing identity theft and giving privacy to crime victims – are sound.
On the other hand, the move to encryption closes the door on real-time police communications, and prevents another check and balance in government from taking place. From this point on, what takes place at crime scenes is what the police say takes place. There’s no one else out there to say differently, because there’s no one else listening in.
Local police are equipped with body cams, but it’s still not the same as a live radio (and nationwide, there have been cases of cameras being mysteriously turned off during incidents).
The move comes as police across the nation face increased scrutiny in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. In Los Altos, a review of current practices is in process.
We appreciate the work of our local police and recognize that for every questionable incident, there are 100 others that exemplify sound community policing. But the loss of scanner communications is a loss for transparency.