- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Last week marked a sad milestone in the long history of public access to government communications in St. Mary’s County. With the transition to a new county radio system, police scanners went silent, the result of new policy to encrypt all police radio communications.
I believe that this policy fails to balance law enforcement’s occasional need for confidential radio communications with the people’s right to government transparency and accountability, and so I believe this policy should be quickly reversed. I respectfully ask for the help of the St. Mary’s County commissioners in restoring our long-recognized right to listen to the radio communications of our government.
There is a compelling public interest in maintaining government transparency and open communications. Open radio communications provide the public a unique opportunity to gain insight into government and public safety operations and provides direct, real-time, unfiltered information about emergency situations in our community.
A citizen’s right to listen reflects the traditional balance of power in American society between the people and their government. While in many oppressive countries it is illegal to listen to the police, our right to listen in the United States has been recognized since the early days of police radio. Our right to listen becomes meaningless if our government is permitted to routinely hide its communications from the public.
Proponents of full-time police radio encryption point to anecdotes of criminals evading capture by monitoring police activities. However, like many other aspects of open society, the advantage of access by the great majority of law-abiding citizens outweighs the occasional attempt by criminals to outsmart the authorities. A scanner radio or cellphone app is no more a criminal tool than is a car or a baseball bat when used responsibly.
A balance between the need for occasional confidential radio communications and public transparency should be sought. With modern radio communications systems, encryption can be enabled with the push of a button or the flip of a switch. So in the rare circumstance that the need for privacy outweighs the people’s right to listen, it is easy to temporarily enable encryption or switch channels.
However, a balance is clearly not achieved — or even remotely approximated — by the current policy of encrypting all police radio traffic. Many other law enforcement agencies across the country have managed to achieve such a balance. Our county can and should do better.
Full-time radio encryption is an overreach by law enforcement that should be immediately checked by the county commissioners by establishing a policy that all routine public safety and public service communications on the county’s new radio system be open to reception by the public as a condition of use of the system.
The new radio system is a critical tool for our public safety personnel and a valuable public resource. This resource should not be used as a mechanism to lock out citizens from information that has long been openly available.
Please reserve secrecy for extraordinary circumstances that require it. Reopen the airwaves of the county’s public safety communications, and embrace public visibility into the daily work of the many outstanding public servants of St. Mary’s County.
Aaron Giles, Leonardtown