Reporter Shane Newell listens to the ERICA radio at the Desert Sun newsroom’s breaking news desk, Wednesday, December 5, 2018.
(Photo: Zoë Meyers/The Desert Sun)

The governmental body behind the police radio system covering five law enforcement agencies in the Coachella Valley says it has decided to limit the radio system to law enforcement personnel, a move that would cut off access to local journalists.

The Eastern Riverside County Interoperable Communications Authority, or ERICA, which operates the encrypted radio channels used by local police in Beaumont, Cathedral City, Desert Hot Springs, Indio and Palm Springs, said the policy change is necessary in order to comply with laws protecting privacy and safety.

But local news outlets say the move will do the opposite, endangering the public by hampering media coverage of disasters like earthquakes or active shooters.

Since it launched in 2010, ERICA has allowed The Desert Sun, KESQ, KMIR and City News Service to listen to its radio system, which is not available to the general public. In November, ERICA alerted the four news outlets it had decided to revoke their access to the broadcasts.

The radio at KESQ went silent shortly thereafter. Radios at The Desert Sun and KMIR continue to broadcast.

Chief Travis Walker of Cathedral City, who serves as chairman of the ERICA Technical Advisory Committee, said the agency decided to confine ERICA communications to law enforcement after legal counsel warned that allowing media access risked releasing protected information like warrants and medical history to people unauthorized by law to hear it.

“If I pulled you over and ran your driver’s license, I get information that is deemed classified,” Walker said, “and the only people that can hear that information are people that have a right to know and a need to know,” like the police.

He said the goal is to safeguard the privacy rights of violent crime victims and minors as well as the safety of officers.

Walker said ERICA risked “significant fines, penalties and even criminal liability” by allowing the media access to the radio communications, including that the Department of Justice could pull the police department’s access to the California Law Enforcement Communications System, or CLETS. CLETS is the computer network law enforcement agencies in California use to access shared databases like vehicle registration records and criminal histories. He said the agency “received a very terse scolding from DOJ” regarding access to encrypted radios.

Law enforcement officers use radios to communicate about incidents like crimes, traffic accidents and disasters. In recent years, some police have encrypted the channels to prevent criminals from eavesdropping on their conversations and to preserve private information disclosed on the radios, like medical conditions. Other agencies, even some that have chosen to encrypt their channels to the general public, have still allowed the media to listen to their broadcasts in real time or with a one-hour time delay.

Adam Scott Wandt, an assistant professor of public policy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said law enforcement agencies must balance the imperative to protect officers, crime victims and the general public with the need to be “open and transparent.”

“I can think of very little reason to keep the legitimate media out of law enforcement communications,” he said.

ERICA’s policy reversal comes two months after the entity sent the four media outlets privy to its radio broadcasts a new user agreement. The agreement would have established “rules of engagement” for members of the media responding to breaking news scenes and would have barred the outlets from publishing information from ERICA broadcasts unless they obtained the broadcast through a record request or received written verification from ERICA.

With the exception of City News Service, a wire service whose news updates are published by subscribers like The Desert Sun, leaders of the four local news organizations did not sign the agreement, believing it to be overly restrictive.

The organizations argued that constraining – or blocking – media access to the ERICA system could impede the speedy dissemination of information about local hazards.

“The big issue here is not about the media, or what we can get, per se, or how we’ve been treated,” said Doug Faigin, president of City News Service. “The real issue is about safety to people in the Coachella Valley.”

Desert Sun Executive Editor Julie Makinen said in an email that even if media outlets can obtain ERICA communications with a records request, the process could stop urgent reporting about a developing situation.

“Access to real-time information serves the immediate public interest, so that media may report on a situation that is a grave threat to public safety – for example, a rapidly moving wildfire, a terrorist attack, or an airplane crash … by advising the public of law-enforcement activity in a certain area and advising the audience to stay away from a location,” she said. “We believe that in fact that media awareness of such information in real time can advance and assist the work of emergency personnel, rather than impede it.”

Source: Desert Sun