Tim Petruk – Kamloops This Week
There is a very real possibility the local news you read and hear and watch in Kamloops will have a different feel in 2014 than it does today.
That’s because the Kamloops RCMP is about to begin the process of switching over to a digital encrypted radio system — meaning reporters and local scanner nerds will no longer be able to listen in on the men and women keeping the Tournament Capital’s streets safe.
It’s part of a cross-Canada move by the RCMP to digital encryption, and Kamloops radios are expected to be converted within seven months.
In Kelowna, the switch was made on April 30.
“I’m sure they [reporters] are bummed,” Kelowna RCMP Const. Steve Holmes told KTW.
“Now they don’t have that instant idea of what’s going on.
“From a practical perspective, I get a lot less phone calls now. It used to be if the media heard something on the scanner they were all phoning.”
Scanners used to be rare and prohibitively expensive — something you’d only see in the hands of reporters and technologically inclined civilians.
Now, with the proliferation of smartphone apps and websites streaming scanners from across North America, everyone with an iPhone or a computer — crooks included — is a few clicks away from listening in on police.
Holmes made the argument encrypted radios mean bad guys can’t track police actions, but Mounties — including those in Kamloops — have had separate encrypted channels at their disposal for years.
Locally, RCMP use their encrypted radio channel for tactical situations like standoffs and hostage-takings, and in the execution of drug warrants and undercover operations.
In some communities where municipal police services have moved to encrypted radios, there were consultations with media beforehand and even changes made in some cases to try to keep reporters — and, through them, the public — in the loop.
That’s not the case with the RCMP.
In Hamilton, Ont., municipal police switched to encrypted radios earlier this year after a series of meetings between law enforcement and media outlets.
Hamilton Spectator city editor Carla Ammerata said the move has changed the way crime is covered.
“It absolutely has changed things for us,” she said.
“In fact, it’s changed the atmosphere in the newsroom. We still actually have the equipment on our desks, but they’re more doorstops now.
“It’s also changed the way we obtain information from police. I can’t say it’s helped the public or our newsroom in terms of getting information.”
Hamilton police set up a secure web portal for “mainstream media,” Ammerata said, to keep reporters up-to-date on police activities.
But, it’s not all that useful.
“I can probably think of a handful of times when there has been useful information for us to glean [from the portal],” Ammerata said.
“The information is just not there. In fact, we’ve developed a reliance on social media and relying on Twitter accounts.”
In Fort Collins, Colo., police switched to encrypted radio earlier this year — but not before striking a unique deal with the local newspaper.
“The agreement we struck was they would lend us a radio for a nominal fee and we would be responsible stewards of that,” said Josh Awtry, executive editor of The Coloradoan newspaper.
“The whole thing came about when we found out they were going to encryption — obviously we were distressed about that.
“We’ve trained our community now that, when they hear sirens, they call us and ask us why. If we lose that ability, that’s when there’s more confusion.”
Awtry said he thinks it’s in the best interest of the public to have police who know a third party is listening in on their radio communication.
“There’s a measure of accountability in that,” he said.
“To me, it’s highly unnerving to go to full encryption.”
John Banzhaf, a public-interest law professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., said the worldwide trend of police departments switching to encrypted radios raises some questions.
“I don’t think it’s a clear black-and-white issue, and I see both advantages and disadvantages for moving toward encryption,” he told KTW.
Among the advantages, Banzhaf said it’s good to have a system that blocks criminals and “rubberneckers” from listening to police communications.
He also said potential privacy concerns can arise when civilians are able to tune in to police radio frequencies.
“If there were no disadvantages, I think the assumption would be, ‘Yeah, we should encrypt,’” he said.
But, there are disadvantages.
Banzhaf said encryption can pose communications issues in the event of a large-scale emergency and noted it’s likely just a matter of time before hackers figure out how to crack the encryption.
Then there’s what he called “the watchdog function.”
“Many journalists are concerned,” he said.
“The theory is they regularly monitor police communications and, as soon as something interesting or newsworthy happens, they run out and are looking at it.
“They’re able to be there and provide a neutral voice and a record of if something is done wrong.”
For instance, a Kelowna reporter listening to a scanner was at the scene of a high-risk traffic stop in 2011 when he filmed RCMP Const. Geoff Mantler kicking a suspect in the face.
The video resulted in Mantler being charged with assault. He later pleaded guilty and has since retired from policing.
Banzhaf said the reality is encryption is the future — warts and all.
“I think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages of going to encryption,” he said.
“But, I don’t think that means it’s perfect.”