Opinion – Editorial
May 30, 2021
TRENTON, NJ (MERCER)–Years ago, my father would take me for a hair cut at Ralph’s Barbershop in Hamilton Township at the corner of South Broad Street and Maple Shade Avenue near the White Horse Circle. In that barbershop that was later renamed to “Ralph’s Hair Styling,” there was a shelf not too far from the barber chair that held a four channel police and fire radio scanner. It was simple back then– four blinking lights, a couple of knobs, a pull up antenna, and “crystals” were inside the scanner to listen to specific police and fire frequencies. On those Saturday mornings at the barbershop, you could read the two local papers, and hear the police and fire activity on that simple radio scanner. Ralph always knew what was going on in the neighborhood though the local media or what he heard live over the scanner and was a regular conversation of what was going on in the barbershop.
Today, radio systems have turned from a simple two-way system to multimillion-dollar trunking systems where radios cost thousands of dollars each and some have digital “encryption” built in at a more expensive cost.
Some agencies such as Trenton Police, Ewing police have used “encryption” for years to keep scanner listeners and the media from finding out what is going on in their town. Recently Hamilton Township has made a switch to an “encrypted” radio system.
For years prior, most day-to-day dispatch operations were not “encrypted” and special channels such as for SWAT, drug enforcement or Special Operations were always encrypted due to safety of the teams. Lately police have been moving to “encrypt” all communications, and not just the special operations channels.
Encryption becomes a policing transparency and accountability problem by restricting the public’s right to monitor public radio frequencies. The encryption is usually set up in the name of police safety and privacy.
Several years ago, I attended a NJ Division of Fire Safety Class called “Media and the Fire Service” and the instructor was a reporter and NBC 10 news anchor in Philadelphia. He normally taught the class to police organizations but also offered the class to fire department organizations. The news anchor stated, when something happens and there is no information available the media will interview someone or ask someone on the street as a source. He said sometimes they will get it right and sometimes they will get it wrong. As a public agency it is best to respond quickly as possible, so the correct information is sent to the public. The news anchor stated that police reported it was a lot easier to report the factual information soon as possible than fix mistakes that “sources” had given the media.
Last night, there was a fatal accident in Trenton, New Jersey around 11:00 p.m. at the Intersection of South Clinton Avenue and Roebling Avenue. Over the EMS Channel, it was broadcast that this was a pedestrian accident and when EMS and the fire department responded they were advised it was possibly a shooting. One of the EMS supervisors also said it was a shooting over the radio no other communications where heard.
Without the ability to listen and back up information that would be heard on police radio in Trenton, most news media that reported on the incident reported it as a “shooting” though reported “sources.”
MidJersey.news covers “breaking news” and goes to several active accidents, crime scenes, and other kinds of events per week to verify information in person. We also heard the report of “shooting” and also the report of a “pedestrian accident” and worded the article as a “possible shooting” since the preliminary reports were unclear. When information is not verified though an “official” police source, we have the information listed as “breaking” “unofficial” and other descriptions of what might have happened until it confirmed by official sources.
MidJersey.news also works with the local police agencies to post the correct information in a timely manner. There have been times when a police department asked to post something quickly because rumors were getting out of control and wanted to get the right information out to as many as possible to prevent a bigger problem.
Here’s what I’m getting at: In today’s media race to be first to report, two major television news outlets from Philadelphia got it wrong by not backing up the story with official information and reported it as fact in their broadcast. These are supposed to be “trusted” news sources and people take what they report over what the local media who does the fact checking first.
To compound the misinformation there are many “armchair” news outlets that scan the Internet for breaking stories and repost those to their sites to gain hits and popularity. These organizations usually do not go out and do their own reporting but work on the backs of other media from a desk or in today’s pandemic quite possibly their couch.
I believe that the major news outlets got caught up in a perfect storm by one emergency channel reporting a shooting that was thought it was at the time and using that as their source. There was no way to back up that information by the ability to monitor police channels due to encrypted radio systems. They did not verify that information by official police sources most likely due to the late hour and holiday weekend. Instead of reporting as fact they should have reported as a possibility of the two things that might have happened.
Most likely reporting like this will continue to happen in the future with the encryption of public safety radios. The Neighbors application by Ring is sometimes used as a trusted source and sometime also gets information wrong and starts rumors rather than fact. Just a couple weeks ago in Hamilton, the Neighbors application reported a person shot on a playground, unofficial sources told MidJersey.news that it was a shots fired call and bullet casings were found but no person shot. No official public information was released by the police department about the incident. In three communities in Mercer County, you can find out more information from the Neighbors application than what is happening on the police radio scanner.
MidJersey.news supports the encryption of Special Operations, SWAT, Drug Enforcement, and other special radio channels that need to be encrypted for safety of police officers. The encryption of day-to-day dispatch and normal radio traffic, in our opinion, does not do anything except prevent transparency, open government, and accountability of policing. The normal day-to-day radio traffic should not be encrypted to prevent law abiding citizens from listening to public safety radio.
Opinion – Editorial
Related information non-MidJersey.news links below about encryption: