In most newsrooms, a scanner that picks up on local police and fire communications provides a constant stream of background noise that often prompts reporters to leap into action when they hear potential breaking news.
But in Santa Monica and a growing number of cities around the country, journalists and residents only get information through police and fire spokespersons and social media.
The Santa Monica Police Department encrypted its communications when it transitioned from an analog to a digital radio system in 2000. Since then, encryption has become a nationwide trend, with hundreds of police and fire departments choosing to restrict public and media access to their radio systems. In Southern California, Orange County, Riverside, Pasadena, Beverly Hills and Palm Springs all encrypt their scanners.
For law enforcement, encryption allays concerns that people will listen to a scanner while committing a crime to evade officers.
“The notorious examples are residential burglary or bank robbery suspects who would be utilizing a scanner to tell if they’ve set off an alarm and the police are on the way,” said SMPD spokesperson Lt. Joseph Cortez.
In the age of social media, police also fear that members of the public with scanners will blindly trust first reports and broadcast information online that could turn out to be false.
“If a call comes in where someone says there’s been a horrible traffic accident and a child has been really injured, and then we go out there and find out that everyone’s fine, I would hate for that information to get out,” Cortez said.
But police scanners have long been a resource for local newsrooms in reporting breaking news, and some members of the public use them to stay up to date on police activity in their neighborhoods.
For both the media and the public, scanners lead to greater transparency and accountability between law enforcement and the communities they serve, said Gabriel Kahn, a journalism professor at the USC Annenberg School.
“Efforts to shroud police practices behind a veil so the public doesn’t have access to them leads to all sorts of problems,” he said.
Kahn said police must clearly explain the rationale for encrypting their communications and be willing to revisit the decision.
“There are legitimate privacy and safety concerns behind the decision to encrypt police communications, but that in and of itself does not give police departments carte blanche to encrypt all communication,” he said. “Police need to demonstrate with quantifiable evidence that their rationale is not simply hypothetical, but a real concern.”
If departments do choose to encrypt, they must be willing to release timely information about incidents as well as disciplinary records and body camera footage, Kahn said. Media investigations into recordings or footage from crime scenes have revealed discrepancies between police records and recorded evidence, he added.
Last spring, SMPD provided disciplinary records dating back to 2014 to the Daily Press under a state law that went into effect in 2019. The law requires police departments to release records from the previous five years that involve officers firing guns, using force that results in death or injury, committing sexual assault or being dishonest.
The SMPD records revealed that officers have been suspended or fired for mistakenly shooting a gun while pursuing a robbery suspect, stealing earbuds from a store manager and attempting to get preferential treatment to adopt a puppy.
“We are living in an age where the public demands greater transparency from public institutions,” Kahn said. “The vast majority of actions that lead to greater transparency increase trust in law enforcement.”