Reality Check w/ John Tracy: City, media need to work together to solve scanner issue
I’ve been reading with interest the response to the Municipality of Anchorage’s decision to encrypt its police and fire scanners.
As usual, the debate has been twisted out of context and boiled down to a basic, but misleading question: Does the public’s right to know supersede a police officer’s right to safety?
If that were the real question, the answer would be easy. Clearly, there should be no expectation that a police officer be put in harm’s way, just so the public can ride along from the comfort of their couch.
But it should be equally unacceptable that police put citizens at risk by withholding information that is important to our safety. That’s exactly what happened with the first test of the honor system, just three days after police invoked the scanner blackout.
After an Anchorage homeowner was shot in a home invasion at 2:00 in the morning, it took police more than 11 hours to report the fact that an armed gunman was at large.
Let’s get a couple of things straight. Police have a lot of ways to communicate in private. They don’t broadcast undercover investigations or drug busts, for example, and nobody is going to hear any chatter when they are conducting a SWAT operation.
Public safety officials and the media have come to uneasy truces over scanner access since police began using radios.
During my tenure in news, the city actually helped us program both our analogue and digital radios. A couple of years ago, in the interest of protecting officers and the flow of information, police put scanner traffic on time delay and put the information online.
Yes, the bad guys listened to scanners, but they always have.
Why didn’t the time-delayed scanner work? The city has waffled through a series of explanations and contradictions that simply don’t hold water.
I take Chief Tolley at his word that he wants the public to have more information, not less. I just don’t buy the argument that suddenly the city’s lawyers say they have no choice but to go dark to protect the information of potential victims. Personal information was rarely, if ever, shared over open frequencies. It’s an excuse looking for a reason.
The answer seems pretty simple. Provide or sell the accredited press radios that deliver real-time access to the previously public scanner channels. We’re talking just a handful of radios in this town.
Sit down and agree to reasonable ground rules. And if a station or newspaper violates those rules, you can take their radio away and leave them in the dark.
But allowing public employees to operate in a vacuum controlling all information, with sole discretion to release what it wants, when it wants, requires a high level of trust.
And as much as it pains me to say it, it’s a level of trust the Anchorage Police Department has yet to demonstrate it deserves.
John’s opinions are his own, and not necessarily those of Denali Media or its employees.
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