Whittier Daily News Editorial: End police radio silence

Whittier Daily News LogoThe Pasadena Police Department was an early adopter at the advent of two-way radio technology early in the last century. Boston installed the first radio sets allowing officers to communicate with a dispatcher at the station in 1934; by 1937, Pasadena had the equipment in its own squad cars.

Even earlier, in 1930, Pasadena became the third city in the state, following Berkeley and Tulare, with police radio at all – an independent station broadcasted one-way alerts to officers in the field, including the “all-points bulletin” that became a cinema staple.

As soon as police radio was born, so was the time-honored tradition of both hobbyists – cop-shop groupies, you might say – and newshawks listening in to the transmissions. Police scanner radios became a staple of newsrooms, very much including this one.

So for over 80 years, police reporters and city editors at newspapers in the San Gabriel Valley have made sure the static-filled, squawk-box sound of police radio transmissions is a constant in the background of our newsrooms.

You get used to it, we assure you. And you learn to tune your ears so that the unimportant stuff goes right past you, while the infrequent breaking news – a fire, a major accident, a barricaded felon with a gun – sends you out to cover the story for our readers.

Crooks? Perhaps they are listening, too, though few bad guys of our acquaintance are so organized.

Last month, the PPD switched over to an encrypted, digital radio system, at great expense. It would be more secure in case of a major emergency, authorities said. City Hall staffers said they would consider loaning media outlets decoding scanners.

Hasn’t happened. And now, after eight decades of public access to the transmissions, the department says it’s not so sure that access should continue.

Here at a time when crime rates of all sorts are plunging, the Pasadena Police Department claims that criminal elements will have too much access to news of officer deployments if scanners are made available.

Which criminal elements? The ones that have been able to listen in since 1930? The cat burglars in newsrooms? The department never said it was going to loan scanners to street gangs.

The Pasadena Police Department, one of the oldest in Southern California, unfortunately has a long history of claiming to be among the most open to communication with the media, while actually operating as one of the most controlling and close-mouthed.

Police Chief Phillip Sanchez claims that “Transparency is a primary mission of the City of Pasadena,” but talk is cheap. After so many decades of actual radio transparency, Sanchez now wants media outlets to file Public Record Requests for transcripts of transmissions – transmissions we can’t hear, so how do we know what to ask for? How does it help us cover crime in the community when police can legally put a hold on such records for 10 “business” days, and find excuses to do so for much longer?

Even when papers produced copy just once a day, reporters could hear police radio. Now, in the 24-hour news cycle, in what way is such a clamp-down on information part of what Sanchez calls “continued transparency to the community”? Given the radio silence, how can he say, with a straight face, “It is never our intent to decrease access to the department’s voice communications”? In his “1984,” that’s what George Orwell dubbed “Newspeak” – the destruction of words through their misuse.

If you mean what you say, chief, end the radio censorship today.

This entry was posted in News and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.