Reporters in Virginia face new challenges as some police departments encrypt communication channels

By |2019-02-28T14:28:50+00:00February 28th, 2019|

Photo by Zoe Myers | The Desert Sun

The police scanner has gone quiet in some newsrooms around Virginia.

The reason? Several police departments across the state have recently opted to encrypt their radio communications.

And some reporters—as well as open-government and transparency advocates– feel the ability to inform the public of a potential threat near them and to listen to unfiltered police communications has been curtailed by the decision to encrypt.

“With closing off access to this real-time information, you’re closing off yet another way for the public to be able to monitor activity of law enforcement,” said Megan Rhyne director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. “It comes at a time that seems to be rather tone deaf as to public expectations about information.”

Since May, police departments in Virginia Beach, Richmond, Chesterfield County, Henrico County and Warren County have fully encrypted their police scanner communications. Other departments, such as the ones in Hampton Police and York County, encrypted in previous years.

“With closing off access to this real-time information, you’re closing off yet another way for the public to be able to monitor activity of law enforcement.”

In other counties, such as Isle of Wright, police departments are in the process of upgrading their systems to be encrypted but with a caveat. With the new system, the public and media can listen to the channels but only if they have a newer radio that is compatible with the new system, which often comes with a hefty price tag.

Not all police departments in Virginia are following suite. Some localities in the state, such as Newport News, are leaving their channels open with no plans to encrypt any time soon.

In the Newsroom

The decision to encrypt police communications has left some reporters around the state with a new void to try and fill in how they are made aware and cover crime events as they are unfolding.

“It gives us a leg up to allow us to go out to a scene if we need to,” said Peter Dujardin, senior crime and courts reporter for the Daily Press. “Scanners and police reports are some of the best ways for us to gather information. Closing it [scanner channels] is not a good thing.”

Dujardin referenced several stories that he said originated from police scanners over the years. One story detailed a person who jumped off the James River Bridge; another dealt with a hostage situation; and another was about a person who was shot in the head and crashed their car.

All three stories were first heard about over the scanner, he said. He would not have got a jump on the stories if he hadn’t been listening to the scanner.

Diana McFarland, editor of the Smithfield Times in Isle of Wright County, shared similar feelings about encryption. She said scanners provide reporters with what’s occurring in a given moment and that there is no substitute for that.

“The nice thing about it is that it’s what’s actually going on, not what they rearrange it to be,” McFarland said. “It’s more interesting to hear it as it’s going on.”

“The nice thing about it (the scanner) is that it’s what’s actually going on, not what they rearrange it to be.”

In addition to having access to unfiltered communications, McFarland said, she will miss out on, smaller details to pepper throughout her stories.

“Once I added to a [storm] story that a chicken coup caught on fire because it was on the scanner,” McFarland said.

That detail, she said, would not have emerged when it did from anywhere other than a scanner. She said the paper thought about upgrading their radio to be compatible with the new encrypted channels, but the cost was too high.

Bill Atkinson, assistant editor at the Progress-Index in Petersburg, said his newsroom has not been affected directly by area police departments encrypting their scanner channels. But he does worry that encryption is a mark against transparency.

“It does give me pause to think that maybe we are seeing a reduction of at least the initial free flow of real-time information,” Atkinson said.

One consolation to police encrypting scanner channels, Dujardin said, is that–for now–fire departments have expressed no interest in encrypting their channels, which often times can be just as useful for information.

“The really big incidents that involve life and death—we still get access to through the fire department communications,” Dujardin said. “But it’s good to have both [police and fire departments channels] because you pick up on different things.”

Why Now?

When a decision to encrypt a previously open channel of communication comes through, there is usually a strong reason for it, Rhyne, director of VCOG, said. But when she began seeing police departments encrypt their channels, she said a concrete reason was never given to justify the change.

Instead, she said, most of the justifications she heard seemed to be more anecdotal and theoretical.

“They’re had not been any real documented need for this shift,” Rhyne said. “When they’re making a big shift to cut off access to information, we always hope that it’s accompanied by a documented need for it–an overriding government interest– and we just didn’t see that.”

“They’re had not been any real documented need for this shift.”

Police departments have said they opted to encrypt because of fear that criminals were listening to communications and to protect officers’ safety.

“We are not trying to hide anything,” said former Richmond Police Chief Alfred Durham to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “This is about officer safety.”

Dujardin said he doesn’t buy the idea that criminals are listening to scanner communications. Instead, he said he believes open channels can potentially help the police.

“There are guys that listen to the scanner who take an interest in helping the police,” Dujardin said. “If police put it out there that they are on the look out for somebody, the people who are listening to the scanner can help. I’ve never heard of an incident where a criminal got away because of listening to a scanner.”

Alternatives?

Some police departments in the state have created alternatives to scanners after encryption. Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield have created websites to track calls. Departments have also said they intend to notify the public via social media channels as well. In Isle of Wright County, police have “Isle of Wright Alerts.”

But channeling information through a “middle man,” can lead to a delay in availability of information, Rhyne said.

“It can present opportunities for misunderstanding and miscommunication,” Rhyne said. “I’m glad there’s something, but I’m not sure that it’s an equal substitute.”

This article appeared in the Winter/Spring 2019 Edition of Virginia’s Press. Read the full issue here.