Ambulance organizations are worried that the pending encryption of police radio transmissions in Lancaster County will compromise the safety of medics racing to dangerous calls, LNP reported last Wednesday. Emergency medical service leaders asked the county commissioners to revise their June approval of police radio encryption to allow their crews to listen to police calls. The commissioners have not made a decision on the request.
Encryption is a bad idea. Words like transparency and accountability should mean something. Their significance diminishes every time we erect another barrier between government and the public.
We want our police officers to be as safe as they can possibly be. We also believe in the importance of public access to information. These values are not mutually exclusive.
Practically speaking, theres no evidence that encrypting police transmissions will make policing safer or easier. Part of the rationale for encryption is to prevent an ambush or to keep the media from reaching a crime scene before law enforcement, which, by the way, is very rare.
We know police officers would rather not have to deal with media at a crime scene. But the media has a job to do. Weather events, fires, gas leaks the media monitors police transmissions to help keep the public informed. Thats the medias job. Weve asked for proof that media or public access to police transmissions has ever compromised a crime scene or an investigation, or violated the privacy of a victim. Were still waiting.
Weve also asked the county commissioners to reconsider. Now, were not alone.
As LNPs Jeff Hawkes reported, medics need to hear what the first officers on the scene are saying to each other and dispatchers about the nature of a crash, shooting or other emergency requiring an ambulance. They can start to prepare before they arrive if they have more information. Is the crime scene secure? Are flood waters too deep? Are there downed wires?
These are legitimate concerns and questions. And how were the EMS officials received when they spoke up at a meeting with the commissioners last week? Not well.
Police departments, I dont think, would ever come in here and ask you to put some regulation on the fire departments, said Chief Kevin McCarthy of East Earl Township, representing a county police chiefs group. We actually thought the matter was finished.
Its not. Nor should it be. And McCarthys comment misses the point by a wide margin.
The entities that rely on police transmissions should be working together to keep the public safe and informed. Radio transmissions help the media communicate to the public. EMTs use the information to get to people who need help. This is a debate about openness in government and access to information. Once it degenerates into an argument over stepping on toes or whos dictating policy to whom, were in real trouble.
As we wrote when the decision to encrypt was announced, if a lack of public trust and faith in government institutions is a real problem, this law only serves to exacerbate mistrust.
And now you have a group of first responders saying it makes no practical sense either and will make their jobs more difficult.
To lose that ability to communicate or at least monitor (police transmissions) is a real danger to people in EMS, Dr. Michael Reihart, the medical director of a regional emergency health services federation, told LNP.
This should be more than enough for the commissioners to reconsider.
It should be, but apparently, it isnt.
Commissioners Chairman Dennis Stuckey, after hearing from EMS officials, said that hes not inclined to change anything.
Darrell Fisher, president of the Lancaster County EMS Council, told LNP that he will continue to push this issue, and we commend him for doing so.
Its pretty clear that the commissioners and everyone else who favors encryption want Reihart and Fisher to lose interest and go away. We hope they dont.
Commissioner Craig Lehman may represent the last hope for preserving transparency and public accessibility. Lehman opposed blocking media access to police radio, and told LNP that hes sensitive to the medics request and worries about other unintended consequences of encryption that could put police at risk.
We hope the police who requested encryption and the commissioners who voted for it will reopen this discussion. We still believe a compromise can be reached. As LNP Executive Editor Barbara Hough Roda wrote in July, we seek a compromise that will allow law enforcement to do its work, and enable those of us in the news media to do ours.
That doesnt seem like too much to ask. And its the least the public has a right to expect.
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