The Washington Post

News organizations push back on D.C. police radio encryption

Lanier said allowing media to monitor police communications would harm public safety. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Lanier made that perfectly clear today in a D.C. Council hearing on her department’s newly encrypted radio communications, which have rendered useless the police scanners employed for decades by news organizations and hobbyists.

Lanier, with the backing of Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Paul Quander, maintains that police need to keep their general radio channels secret in the interest of public safety. But they have declined to offer anything besides hypotheticals in meetings with media organizations that have asked for the reasoning behind the communications lockdown, which began in September.

Representatives from several news organizations, including a Washington Post attorney, testified at the hearing, uniformly telling Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) that the encryption has made it more difficult for reporters to broadcast timely, accurate information about breaking news. The department’s current approach to handling breaking news — through public information officers, listserv posts, Twitter, and the D.C. Alert system — is inadequate, many testified.

The radio shutdown, said a WUSA-TV representative, “is taking the public out of public safety.”

The news organizations have suggested that a limited number of scanners be made available for their own use, purchased or leased from the city. But Lanier was clearly uncomfortable with any arrangement that would allow unfettered access to police radio frequencies for the media or anyone else. She suggested that media monitoring would only be permissible if delayed and scrubbed of certain information.

”The compromise should be improving what we do, not reducing public safety by allowing the press to have direct access to radio transmissions,” she said.

The prospect of allowing select media access to the radio channels does raise nettlesome questions: Who qualifies as media? How should the radios be secured? How many radios do news organizations need? Lanier asked Mendelson for time to improve the department’s self-reporting of breaking events as a “happy medium” that would not “waste the investment we made in encryption.”

But the news representatives questioned any solution that gave police the ability to filter the news.

Lanier argued that the media does plenty of filtering itself. “What’s the difference?” she asked.

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.


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