San Diego Police cruiser
A San Diego Police cruiser at the scene of an officer-involved shooting in Mountain View in 2020. Courtesy OnScene.TV

For editors and reporters, access to the police scanner is a critical — and immediate — news source when covering breaking news, be it a massive fire raging through a community or rescue workers trying find a child swept away in a creek.

That access is being threatened in California now that dozens of law enforcement agencies, including the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, have made the decision to fully encrypt their communications, based on a directive from the agency whose statewide computer network provides criminal histories, driver records and other public safety information.

For 80 years, the information transmitted via the scanners has increased transparency and accountability of police agencies for both the public and the media.

The California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System opened the door to this move to encrypt communications in late 2020 when it said police agencies have to protect “identifying information” during transmission. But the agencies that are shutting down access are shutting everything down, not just the “identifying information” that the directive called for.

The California News Publishers Association has said that “some law enforcement agencies have used this as a justification to encrypt all radio transmissions, cutting off necessary transparency.” 

This in turn has led to pushback from media organizations and the introduction of Senate Bill 1000, known as the Public’s Right to the Police Radio Communications Act. Sen. Josh Becker, a Democrat from San Mateo, said he introduced the bill because “now is not the time to reduce public access to police activity.”

“Access to information regarding police activity is not an ‘operational change’ that should be taken without input from the public, the media, or city, county and state elected officials,” said Becker.

He said passage of his bill is critical to restore the public’s ability to listen to law enforcement scanners. If approved, the legislation would allow media and public access, starting Jan. 1, 2023, to police communications as long as it does not reveal undercover operations or include confidential information.

Local media representatives are united in their opposition to the encrypted communications and support for Becker’s legislation.

Cliff Albert, a 41-year veteran of the local news business, said encryption “would be a disservice to the public.” Albert, who is news director at 600 KOGO Newsradio, said encryption “would make it harder for the community not only to be properly informed and in a timely way, but it also would be more difficult to alert members of the public about potentially dangerous situations that they need to know about.”

Miriam Raftery, editor of online news site East County Magazine, agrees. “There is simply no legitimate reason for our sheriff to take all scanner communications away from the public,” she said.

She noted that smaller police departments like La Mesa and El Cajon have encrypted all communications, while the San Diego Police Department moved only private information to a separate secure channel and kept the rest available.

She complained that the sheriff’s department has the ability to use separate secure channels, when necessary but has chosen not to do so.

Paul Krueger, recently retired NBC7 producer, said, “I support any legislation that protects the media’s — and the public’s — ability to monitor law enforcement activities without endangering our police and fire safety officers.  As a longtime local journalist who worked in both print and electronic media, I know how much working journalists need access to police and fire dispatch to keep the public informed.”

Lt. Amber Baggs, media relations director for the sheriff’s department, said her agency is working on a solution.

“We’re currently working on a public-facing calls for service system that will be housed on our public website,” she said. “Once all the details get finalized, we will be issuing a press release to inform our communities and media folks.”

Baggs added that “I can tell you that the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department values our communication with members of the press and the public. We want to keep them informed.”

Californian’s Aware and its Assistant General Counsel, Shaila Nathu have written in support of the bill because “access to police radio communications is a critical tool in the fight for police transparency and accountability.  SB 1000 proactively requires that these tools are accessible to the press and the public.”

Raftery concurs, saying, “While I agree that victims’ personal details should be kept private, this should not be used as an excuse to prevent access by the press and public to the vast majority of scanner traffic.”

JW August is a San Diego-based broadcast and digital journalist.