Saturday, September 3, 2011

Jacksonville sheriff takes media police scanners

The Jacksonville County Sheriff's Office in Florida has pulled its police radios out of local newsrooms there.

Here are a couple of the accounts run in local media:

JSO Police Scanners Removed from First Coast News

Police Take Scanners from Media

As someone who spent many years working in a newsroom, I find this alarming. Police now have the ability to carry out their work under a cloak of secrecy that would have been impossible just a decade or two ago.

Police radios have changed a lot in recent years. In the old days, news media (and hobbyists) simply bought their own gear and listened in.

Things began to change in the late '80s when agencies began moving their radio traffic up to the 800Mhz range, and began to use digital technology known as trunk tracking. That meant radio traffic could jump from channel to channel, and only specially programmed radios would capture a whole conversation.

It was in this era that many newsrooms began to depend on government supplied radios.

Secrecy got bumped up another notch in recent years as government agencies began to add encryption to their transmissions. With encryption, radios that aren't specifically programmed to decode the signal will hear nothing that's understandable.

Agencies ranging from police and fire to school boards now cloak their transmissions with encryption (To see if your community is among them, look here).

I cranked up my old police scanner (800Mhz capable) a year or two ago, and heard nothing from nearby agencies. The set that once tipped me to everything from riots to local shoplifting is now relegated to picking up NOAA weather radio, HAM repeaters and a few media outlets still using UHF two-ways.

When making the move to more secure transmissions, police agencies often pacified media objections by offering to let them have (or lease) radios programmed to receive restricted transmissions. Now that those public safety networks are irrevocably in place, it appears government now feels safe in rescinding its earlier spirit of cooperation. At least that appears to be the case in Jacksonville, Florida.

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