Note: The following letter was sentFriday to Lancaster County Commissioners Dennis Stuckey, Craig Lehman and Josh Parsons.
I strongly urge you to reconsider the decision to encrypt police department radio transmissions before this change takes place in November.
First, the health and safety of both our Lancaster County community and the law enforcement officials who protect it are paramount.
Second, essential to the well-being of our county must be a government system that values public accessibility, transparency and accountability.
These two truths must find a way to co-exist.
Certainly, a healthy democracy and an informed citizenry here do not depend solely on public and news media access to Lancaster County police radio broadcasts. Both are, however, seriously diminished when the publics right to know is further eroded something that is becoming alarmingly common in our commonwealth and across this country.
Our newspaper has long relied on police communication to provide the public with emergency information. I consider a scanner as essential to my job as a wrench to a plumber, a longtime television journalist in Oklahoma wrote to me last Sunday. He reached out in support of LNPs July 5 editorial opposing encryption.
Think snowstorms. Vehicular accidents. Road closings. Gas leaks. Homicides. Violent protests.
Radio access enables news outlets to work hand-in-hand with first responders to keep the public away from dangerous situations, Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, noted in a recent LNP article. Total encryption addresses a problem that doesnt exist where the media is concerned.
West Hempfield Township Police Chief Mark Pugliese I, who chairs the county chiefs Police Advisory Board to Lancaster County-Wide Communications and represents the county Chiefs of Police Association on this issue, appears to agree.
Referring to events worldwide and expressing concern for police safety, he told you its not unusual for officers today to be ambushed. But he also acknowledged that were not getting that so much in Lancaster County.
Additionally, the chief spoke about incidents here where the public or the media interfered with investigations, in some cases by getting to crime scenes more quickly than police.
When pressed by an LNP reporter, Chief Pugliese could not cite a single situation in Lancaster County where the media interfered at a crime scene.
The chief says he is not anti-media.
Nor am I anti-law enforcement.
When the earth rumbles or a gun fires, citizens rely on police and other first responders to courageously address the emergency. They expect us in the news media to tell them what is happening. Shutting off access to information feeds distrust and anxiety; it fuels the spread of misinformation by social media commenters unbound by the journalistic standards of citing sources and confirming details.
Chief Pugliese said that the removal of public and media access to police broadcasts will make it incumbent on police to improve the lines of communication.
Experience suggests to me that will not happen; I dont see that as law enforcements primary role, and I dont see how it does either. Access to timely and accurate information that serves the public interest will suffer as a result.
Like law enforcement, we in the news media must be allowed to do the work we are trained to do. It is incumbent upon us to get it right and to be held accountable if we dont.
While all three of you are and must be concerned about police safety, Commissioner Lehman has said that blocking police communication might give officers a false sense of security and further isolate them from the community. Hes suggested a compromise of encrypting public transmissions, but allowing access to the news media.
It is certainly a better option.
I was at home July 2 and only yards away from the horrific Manor Township gas explosion that killed one man and injured others as it leveled a house, severely damaged neighboring homes and, in seconds, rattled the psyche of an entire community.
Frightened neighbors ran outside their homes, erroneously speculating about the cause of the blast. I called the newsroom and was accurately informed that it was a gas explosion. Then I walked to the scene to join my newspaper colleagues in probing more deeply as we talked with witnesses, questioned officials and provided real-time information that a county wanted and needed in that moment.
Fire and ambulance dispatches, the ones that guided us that day, are not part of the planned encryption here. At least not yet. As Chief Pugliese noted, the scrambling of police communication, and that of fire and ambulance, is becoming the national norm.
I dont think thats the way to go. I do believe a compromise can be struck, one that will allow law enforcement to do its work, and enable those of us in the news media to do ours.
We both exist, after all, to serve our Lancaster County community to the very best of our abilities.
Barbara Hough Roda is executive editor of LNP and LancasterOnline. Email: broda@LNPnews.com; phone, 717-481-7335; Twitter, @BarbRodaLNP.
Commissioners need to rethink encryption – LancasterOnline
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