Across the country, police and emergency departments are upgrading to communication systems that are clearer and more secure. But in the process, journalists and the general public are losing access to what has long been a source of news or entertainment. Traditional radio scanners cannot pick up communications made using these new systems, and devices that do are either prohibitively expensive or unavailable to the media. Trunked Radio Systems, also known as 800 megahertz radios, are replacing traditional radio systems in cities from California to Delaware. “Trunked” refers to the system’s capability to shift transmissions to different channels, or talkgroups, within the radio band. Some systems are digital, which are encrypted, and some are analog, which aren’t. The only way to monitor communications on digital trunked systems is to use the same equipment the cops have and have the right access software to decrypt the digital signals. This is a change from traditional analog systems, which can be monitored using a scanner that costs about $300. Emergency departments in Gainesville, Fla., switched to digital trunked systems in late 2000, and they initially would not allow any member of the media to access the communication systems. Only after media groups protested did the Radio Management Board, which governs access to the systems, allow media outlets to lease devices that would make monitoring the emergency agencies possible. Access hasn’t come cheaply. In Gainesville, it costs $131 a month to lease a single TRS radio that can be programmed to receive police, fire and medical communications. Compare that to the roughly $150 cost to purchase a traditional scanner. But the intent, governments say, is neither to profit nor to exclude the media. In Easton, Md., the Talbot County sheriff’s department switched to a digital trunked system in January because of the increased range, clarity, security and convenience it offered. Talbot County police can more easily communicate with state police and police in other counties. “If everyone’s on the same radio system, it makes it easier,” said Sean Morrissey, deputy sheriff of Talbot County. “It works a lot better than what we used to have. … It’s mainly designed to keep the bad guys out.” The Star Democrat newspaper in Easton made a request in mid-July to lease a radio so it could hear police transmissions, but it’s still pending. If it’s denied, the newspaper intends to send reporters to the 911 dispatch center because tapes of 911 calls are public record. “That would obviously be a lot more time consuming,” said John Griep, news editor of the paper. Not having the police radio traffic is “a hindrance to us in performing our jobs,” he said. Reporters at The Star Democrat can still listen to other agencies on the paper’s scanners. “We’re helped by the fact that not all the towns went over to this … we hear some things,” Griep said. In Gainesville, only bona fide media outlets are allowed to lease the TRS radios from Gainesville Regional Utilities, which manages the systems. The Alachua County sheriff’s office defines what is a media outlet, and only approved outlets may lease a radio from the utility company or buy one from Motorola and pay a monthly maintenance fee for access. Clermont County, Ohio police switched to 800 megahertz devices and initially would allow only the media to access the communications. But after meetings with the public and the media, the county decided to try to accommodate requests for access. At least through the end of the year, all the police communications will be broadcast on both the new 800 megahertz systems and the old system, according to Stephen Rabolt, chief information officer for the county. This agreement allows the media and the public time to purchase the new radios. By the end of 2002, the county will cease broadcasting on the old system altogether but will allow anyone with the appropriate technology to listen to communications. Later this year, the county plans on implementing two new ways for people to monitor police and emergency communications: a Web site where all broadcast traffic will be available and a pager service that will alert users of major events. “Both of these will be pilot programs,” Rabolt said. “Other agencies [around the country] have used them and are happy with them.” The Kansas City, Mo. police decided to switch to a new encrypted communication system in the late ’80s, but they didn’t bring it online until about 1995, at which time they announced no one would be able to hear the transmissions. “We were not going to be able to hear anything,” said Karen Dillon, a project reporter at The Kansas City Star. “Just a total blackout.” And, Dillon says, this doesn’t just affect reporters and scanner buffs. Private security firms, neighborhood watch groups and even traffic reporters depend on police transmissions. Without them, traffic helicopter pilots and reporters don’t know where accidents are, and private security firms that patrol areas from office buildings to suburban neighborhoods don’t know if a threat is in their vicinity. “There was just a laundry list of people it would affect,” she said. So the Star and other media groups organized a committee to protest the blackout. The agreement they eventually reached with police has allowed both the media and the rest of the public to access transmissions by buying a radio unit from the police. The new radios are more expensive than the old scanners were, though. The Star bought nine units – five full-size models and four handheld models – which together cost almost $10,000. Dillon says if police and emergency departments decide to switch to these systems, journalists need to carefully examine the effect it will have on the public. “You have to make the public care. You have to explain why it’s important,” she said. “At the same time, get together with all the media in your area. You can prevail that way.” In addition to lack of access, some problems have been reported with the systems themselves. So-called “dead spots,” where the radios won’t work, are a problem in some areas because of terrain, and other problems with repeaters not working correctly have been reported. The Kansas City police decided to use Ericsson systems, which don’t work with the Motorola systems in use in most of the surrounding areas. And when the Kansas City system first came online, there weren’t enough antennas set up, so firefighters couldn’t communicate while inside buildings. Ericsson ended up facing two lawsuits from firefighters and police officers over the systems, both of which were settled. Kansas City’s system was budgeted to cost about $18 million, but eventually cost more than $30 million. At one point, the city planned to institute the use of a system that would have cops using devices similar to laptop computers in their cars. Dillon wanted to know how they’d be able to drive while using the computers. “It was just the strangest working philosophy,” she said. And it’s the police’s philosophy that worries Dillon. She believes that they’re becoming more militaristic in their thinking. “They’re just isolating themselves and you have to bring them back to reality,” she said.
Elizabeth Whalen was a Pulliam/Kilgore intern at SPJ’s national office. She is a senior at Case Western Reserve University.