Scan and Deliver: Notes on JSO police radios and the media

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The Jacksonville Sheriffs Office announced in early July their intent to remove 22 police radios from local TV newsrooms. The Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department then followed suit by announcing plans to scramble their frequencies, blocking media access to their dispatches. In both cases, officials at these venerable organizations—the guts of our city’s first-response capacity—assert that such access interferes with their duties to protect and serve the public, that media access to scanners leads to excess traffic and possibly slower response time.

Budgetary constraints necessitating their recall seem almost ridiculous; for a city this size to be nickling-and-diming on such essential equipment evokes the infamous faulty radios that caused untold havoc among first-responders on 9/11. Not only media will lose these devices, but so will other law-enforcement agencies, most of which are probably already looking into aspects of JSO activity anyway. It’s unclear if these organizations will be allowed to use their own devices, if they chose to buy them.

According to the Florida Times-Union, the devices (made by Motorola, which is hilarious) cost about $4,600 each, but they are leased for $70 per month; editor Marilyn Young claimed on the paper’s website to have paid over $30,000 for six of them since 2005. “The radios were leased to the media when the JSO’s radio transmissions were encrypted [in 2005],” she wrote. “Before that, we could keep track of breaking news with radios we bought from places such as Radio Shack. … Without the radios, though, no media will be able to tell the public about a call out for a homicide, a police-involved shooting, a rape, an assault or anything else that officers are dispatched to until JSO decides it’s time for the public to know. … It’s not the end of the police beat, but it’s the end of giving the public information it wants, needs and/or deserves in a time period not controlled by a public agency.”

Lauri-Ellen Smith, APR is the Special Assistant to Sheriff John Rutherford, disagrees with the media’s position. In an e-mail to this reporter, she points out that it was not a snap decision on their part, but the result of extended deliberation. “We have been discussing this at JSO since late 2009. We did do some research and polled other law enforcement agencies as to their status with leasing radios to the media.” Smith provided this reporter with a list of all the police radios being leased out, as well as information related to JSO’s research on the issue statewide. According to their records, JSO gave approximately 98 police radios to various media outlets and law-enforcement agencies. Besides the six leased to the T-U, two were leased to WTLV, three to WOKV, three to WJXT and two to FOX-30.

JSO’s “Police Radio Encryption Survey”, dated June 3, surveys the practices of 15 other counties, as well as the Florida Highway Patrol. (Data forBakerCountywas unavailable.) About half those counties (Escambia,Leon, Flagler, Levy, Lake andNassau) and FHP encrypt their radio content.Nassau, which takes its cues on this subject from JSO, is the only other county surveyed that leases radios to the media; they charge $54.26 per month. Media representatives inClay,Leonand Flagler counties had all previously requested access to the radios, but were denied; “[LeonCounty] went encrypted a year ago for the specific purpose of taking access away from the media because of officer safety, suspect information, and tactical information being released.”

When asked whether JSO made this move unilaterally, or in consultation with other departments (as had been widely suspected), Smith notes that JSO was already unique among its peers in the level of transparency afforded the media: “[T]here are no police radios loaned or leased to the media by any law enforcement agencies in the area such as FHP, FBI, FDLE, Clay County SO, St Johns County SO, etc.” She adds that “Many of the law enforcement agencies that had possession of our police radios have been asked to turn them back in, as well.” These outlets include the base cops at NAS-JAX andMayport,FloridaDepartment of Law Enforcement, Neptune Beach PD, the St. Johns County Sheriffs Office and the FHP.

Smith notes that, while the police radios are gone, “We continue to utilize the Emergency Area Radio System (or EARS) text messaging to the media, notifying them of police activity in the area. The retrieval of our police radios from the news outlets means they lose their access to REAL TIME police transmissions, which is in accordance with a Florida Attorney General’s Opinion of September 22, 1997.” Local reporters complain that the EARS system basically allows JSO to censor details and delay giving crucial information to the media; it has been alleged that EARS texts get sent out to the media as late as two hours after the initial dispatch was made. Of course, since they know this only because they can compare the texts to the data from the police radios, it will now be impossible to assess the effectiveness of the system. 

But, to the point: Do police scanners serve to facilitate media interference in law-enforcement business? “Only a media outlet could tell you if they were intrusive into a crime scene, hindered an investigation or police activity, or reporting something to the public that they took off the radio without verifying it with us first”, Smith writes. (For the record, there are more known cases of police investigations being hindered by other police than by the media; that is a matter of public record.)

However, when asked for a specific example of their work being complicated by the media and their access to police radios, she did provide an example: “One of the most notable recent cases was when we received a tip that a man accused of killing two police officers inTampahad fled toJacksonville. While our officers were assembling to affect their tactical strategy at that business, a news truck and crew arrived and parked adjacent to the business. This created a serious public safety issue for not only the [news crew], but every customer in the business. If he had been the suspect (it turned out he was a strong “look alike”) and spotted that news truck, a hostage situation or something more tragic could have occurred.” Other cases have been cited informally, such as the murder suspect whose police standoff was broadcast live, as he watched from inside a house. He ended up killing himself, but any plans to escape or to go out shooting would have been greatly helped by watching police formations on TV.

Cynics would argue that these moves do not occur in a Duval-sized vacuum, but work adjacently to the larger battle between public institutions and the private sector, a battle being waged now in Tallahassee and Washington DC, and on the streets of pretty much every city in America. It’s been said that removing scanners from newsrooms will make it easier for police to cover up police misconduct; rumors have already begun to filter in from other cities that some departments may begin the phasing-out of “dash-cam” videos in a few months. For its part, JSO professes no present plans to remove the dash-cams. “We find the dashboard cameras to be another effective tool in police work, in the specific instances where they are utilized”, writes Smith.

As the dynamic between police and citizens deteriorates, first-responders are having their resources cut nationwide, which probably doesn’t help things. Courts from the federal level on down have consistently struck down the will of voters on local and state levels (including a Presidential election), ruled against citizens bringing suit for excessive force (including dozens of police-involved shootings), signed off on every evolution of the Unitary Executive, permitted rigging of political elections with money proven to be laundered into parties and PACs by unlicensed foreign interests. They have still made no definitive comment on citizens’ right to videotape the police while they are arresting suspects; arrests and beatings of people shooting such video are becoming as common as in any number of nations we should be striving not to emulate.

In the old days, the police beat was the meat and sinew of journalism work. At one point in the late-1950s, there were at least 18 daily newspapers serving New York City—just Manhattan, not counting the boroughs and a lot of the ethnic papers. Young reporters would start out there, get wised-up to the business and the techniques needed for success. The old-timers would take pride in how quickly they wore out a pair of shoes walking the beat; they knew the cops, the criminals, the civilians and everyone in-between. These were giants: guys like Jimmy Breslin, who knew all the hoods in New York; Mike Royko, who witnessed the war for Division St.in Chicagoand whose Boss (about Richard Daley) is a must-read for any political junkie; Irv “Kup” Kupcinet, who ran neck-and-neck with Royko for decades. Here in Duval we had folks like Mark Foley and the late, great Jessie-Lynn Kerr.

When Lepke Buchalter, architect of “Murder, Incorporated”, finally surrendered to face justice after a career of killing professional killers, he surrendered to a guy named Walter Winchell, a reporter and radio host whose style is virtually synonymous with that era. The photography world boats a man called “Weegee”, who spent much of his career shooting shots of shootings on the brutal streets of mid-century New York. His car was a rolling mobile multi-media machine: typewriter, camera equipment and the means to develop them on the spot, extra clothes and copies of the competition, and of course, a police scanner/CB radio. (This was years before television.) As a result, he often got to the scene before the cops; he also carried first-aid gear.

The police beat has been a major casualty of the unfortunate changes to befall the journalism industry in recent years. With many of the country’s leading newspapers on the brink financially, and the rest making significant cuts to keep up with financial pressures, the days of full-time police reporting may be essentially over. There remain a few of the old-style specialists at selected papers, and some interesting blogs floating about, but it’s a dying artform. You’re more likely to see reporters working stories once they get to court than in the crucial early stages; media’s general passivity on domestic issues stands in stark contrast to their bulldog work on the war.

Conspiracy theorists projecting the expansion of a police state should be careful to note that the real trend now, nationally, is toward a sort of faux-anarchy. Government has lost its credibility not only with the American People, but with much of the world. Our economy has collapsed, taking with it much of our leaders’ ability to effectively mediate disputes among citizens. The political and business elite have imposed chaos onto the population, and it is the job of law-enforcement to manage that chaos.

sheltonhull@gmail.com; August 1, 2011

 

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About Shelton Hull

I'm a writer/journalist with over 20 years experience covering all types of subject-matter, with a specialization in politics, music, food and dance. My work has been published in nearly 40 different magazines, newspapers, websites and zines, in addition to occasional forays into radio, TV and spoken-word. Former candidate for City Council District 14 in Jacksonville, FL (2011), and a proud member of Gator Nation.

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