If you've read a newspaper or Internet news site, or listened to a radio or TV news broadcast in the last 30 years or so, you are guaranteed to have seen or heard more than a few items that were initially gleaned from a police radio scanner. Reporters and public tipsters have been dutifully monitoring police radio traffic, listening for chatter about robberies, homicides, accidents, fires and other public safety events, since soon after the introduction of the scanner in 1976.
In Little Rock, that pipeline of news tips will be shut off — and surely some of the news that would otherwise go unnoticed with it — on Friday, Aug. 1, when the Little Rock Police Department completes the process of encrypting its radio frequencies so they can't be heard by the general public. The police say it will help them fight crime more effectively, keep officers safe and prevent criminals from listening in on their movements either on radios or through online police scanner sites, such as broadcastify.com. Some in the media, however, are worried about what encryption might do to the day-to-day collection of news. One local citizen journalist goes so far as to call it an attempt to stifle the flow of information about crime.
A statement released by the LRPD on Monday said the process of encrypting the police band in Little Rock began July 28. Locally, both the North Little Rock Police Department and the Conway Police Department encrypted their radio traffic over a year ago.
"This action is being done in a preventative and proactive manner," a statement by LRPD spokesman Lt. Sidney Allen said. "Among numerous reasons to encrypt the frequencies, [most] revolve around officer safety. There are those in society who use police frequencies to monitor police presence in an area and use that information to victimize citizens of the city. In some instances they monitor calls to see if a call is being dispatched to the location where they are committing a crime."
Allen goes on to say that while the department recognizes that members of the public monitor police radio traffic to educate themselves, the safety of officers and the public is paramount. "We are currently finalizing a process on informing the media of critical incidents," he concludes.
Austin Kellerman is news director of KARK-TV Channel 4, and KLRT-TV, Channel 16. He said that his newsroom "leans heavily" on the monitoring of police radio traffic for tips on spot news and daily occurrences around town. "It's not information you report," he said, "but it is kind of that tip. You hear certain keywords, and you know you need to get out there and check out a scene and learn more about it."
Kellerman said that listening to radio traffic sometimes tips off his reporters to crime or public safety events two hours or more before the police department releases a public statement. "[We see it] just in terms of getting that information out to the public quickly, especially when there's a public safety issue — a gunman, or anyone else out there that could pose harm to the public," he said. "Having that scanner traffic available as a guide so we know which direction to go in and what type of information to get out to the public is key."
Kellerman said he hoped the city would create some system that allowed reporters to hear some police radio traffic, even if it means the station has to purchase more equipment. He said it was too early in the process to tell how encryption will change the way local reporting works.
Paul Carr, creator of the popular Facebook and online community news source Forbidden Hillcrest, said he has relied on monitoring police radio traffic in the past to report news that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. Soon after learning about the plan to encrypt LRPD radio traffic, Carr posted a note about it to the Forbidden Hillcrest Facebook page, noting that the decision to encrypt "was done with no public discussion and no vote by the LR board of directors." He called the LRPD statement released on Monday "pro-encryption propaganda."
Carr said there is a lot of information that can be gleaned from scanners, and that not being able to listen in on radio traffic will definitely hurt the ability of Forbidden Hillcrest and other Little Rock news outlets to collect and report the news. He notes that of the hundreds of calls the LRPD responds to every day, the department might issue one or two emails per day about a crime. Often, even those emails are sent in response to a reporter's question about something they or a tipster originally heard over the scanner.
Carr gave as an example the apparent "road rage" incident that happened near Rebsamen Park Golf Course on July 27, with one driver allegedly firing several shots at another following a fender bender. Carr said he posted the initial media report about the incident on Forbidden Hillcrest after a reader who listens to LRPD traffic on her scanner sent him a tip about it.
"I'm pretty sure that story would have never seen the light of day if she hadn't heard it on the scanner, and if I hadn't posted it on Forbidden Hillcrest," Carr said. "The police did follow through that day with an email, but I think that was in response to inquiries from media people who heard about it on [Forbidden Hillcrest]."
Carr said that if he were in charge of the department, he would be tempted to encrypt the police radio traffic as well. Control the information and you can control the general public's impression of crime and safety in the city. "It reduces the awareness of crime, it reduces public oversight of crime, and it keeps media away from the crime scene," Carr said. "It makes their job easier, but I don't think it's in the public interest."
LRPD spokesman Allen said the decision to encrypt was made before the arrival of new Police Chief Kenton Buckner. He told a reporter that the ability of criminals to listen in on police traffic was the primary reason behind encryption.
"Not only were good people listening to the radios to see what's going on and kind of get a feel for what's going on in the city. That criminal element was also listening to the radios. There have been cases locally and nationally where a criminal might have a [police scanner] app on his telephone, his iPhone or Android phone. They'll hear that call being dispatched, and they'll leave prior to the police getting there."
Allen said that he didn't know if the city would come up with a way for media outlets to listen in on certain radio traffic, as Kellerman had suggested, but he said the information about crime would get to media outlets.
"The information will still get out there," he said. "Today, things are always instant. People have instant popcorn and instant news. You will still get that information, but it's just not going to be instant like it was in the past."
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