‘Go to 5,’ forever
Of the many technological upgrades the Minot Police Department is pursuing, such as new dash-cams and updates to their patrol cars, the one with the most immediate impact on the Minot community is that the department will be scrambling all of its radio broadcasts.
This will silence the scanners of all who listen in to police emergency broadcasts within this year. Transmissions for other agencies are believed to remain open.
“The technology is out there right now,” said Capt. John Klug of the Minot Police Department in confirmation, adding that an exact date for the change is not yet determined but that their radios already have the technology for it and it will happen sometime this year.
“As much as we want to share the information with the people who honestly want to report accurate information and do the right thing with it, we’re also competing with technology on the other end where I can put an app on my phone and listen to police traffic.”
Klug, who is both the administrative captain and the public information officer for the department, listed a litany of reasons why the department will undergo the change. They mirror the concerns expressed by Chief Jason Olson nearly two years ago when he dropped hints of the change.
Those include concerns that criminals use access to the radio to track police activity while planning or undergoing a criminal operation so they won’t be caught. Another is concern over the public dissemination of personal information including names, addresses and birthdates of those police interact with.
“There’s kind of a balance between how we can do our job effectively and how we can share the information,” Klug said.
Jack McDonald of the Wheeler Wolf Law Firm in Bismarck and the lawyer for the North Dakota Newspaper Association said it’s really the “preference” of each department on whether to allow open access to radio broadcasts.
“There’s no state law or no laws that provide that you have access to those radios,” McDonald said. “It’s certainly within the rights of the police department to scramble. It wouldn’t be a violation of any open meetings or open records laws because there’s no rights to those broadcasts in the first place.”
McDonald did not know off-hand whether any other jurisdiction in the state had made the same decision to go silent but said he did not see it as a “trend” in his readings of media law journals from around the country.
It is an unusual decision for a police agency but not unprecedented. In March 2013 The Coloradoan, a daily newspaper in Fort Collins, Colo., reported that City of Fort Collins Police Services would be scrambling emergency broadcasts in their
In an interview Thursday, Eric Larsen, the senior editor for content at that newspaper, said that the first thing the newspaper did upon hearing the news was to find out the legality of the change.
They received the same information from their lawyer as what McDonald said about North Dakota law.
“There’s nothing to compel them to do anything different,” Larsen said the newspaper was told by their lawyers.
“But that hinders our ability to know what is going on in the city in that angle,” he said. “We lobbied them kind of hard to not go behind encrypted channels.”
After negotiations, the newspaper reached a deal with Fort Collins Police Services: They would lease a police radio from the department for a nominal fee of $100 and would have access to one base channel, Channel 4, that was used for inter-agency chatter and other emergency services apart from the police.
“What we’ve seen is in using the radio that we have, it stays mostly quiet,” Larsen said, then agreeing to a question that there is a “stark difference” between the old radio system and what is available to them now.
Klug said the department already operates radios that work on two frequencies. One of those has traditionally been scrambled, Channel 5, and the other has been left open. But it’s a matter of cost the department has to consider, he said, while the city expands.
“It’s great to say ‘Go to five’ and that will resolve the issue and you won’t have that information but the problem is we’ve had to build up because the city has grown,” Klug said. “We’ve had to build up our network for the radio towers. Basically we’ve had to invest more money into receivers so that we can receive and transmit information in the expanded City of Minot and that’s difficult to do without a lot of money on both channels.”
Lack of access
Several months into 2014, the Minot Police Department purchased new docket technology and stripped the media of its immediate access to the police docket.
Media access was already limited in many ways. Information involving personal information of minors, sexual assault victims and other very sensitive information was filed at a higher level than the general information on other crimes. It was a way for media to track the numbers of crimes and get base information that they could then use to ask for further information after they had established that there may be a story there.
The reasons for the stripped access involved changes in the technology, Klug said. The changes made it so that they were unable to provide multi-tiered access and they didn’t want to risk the access to some information being made available.
Instead, the department has looked into systems of the police departments in Fargo and Sioux Falls, S.D., which have publicly-accessible dockets on their websites that, through a small bit of coding, take some basics from docket entries and upload it to the public database.
The information available through these systems is very limited and to get anything more than the extreme basics such as location, time and type of incident would take picking up the phone and placing a call.
Klug remains the department’s sole point of contact for media and public enquiry but has began to loosen the restraints put on shift commanders to answer basic questions about a criminal or other event, usually along the lines of confirmation of the event being true and maybe time and location.
While the department figures out solid policies and technological implements for their plans, taking access away from both the first point of information, the scanner, and the secondary point of information, the docket, changes the way that the media can learn about and impart the news to the community.
For the Coloradoan’s part, they turned to more extensive use of social media to learn of events in town.
“You kind of play the hand that you’re dealt,” Larsen said. “We didn’t have much choice in how long it would take to adjust.”
While the police do have the legal option to silence their communications, access to final copy may be the next step to look into.
McDonald said that should a police department use real-time or even later transcription of 911 calls or other information over the phone, then the circumstances change. Those transcripts of calls then become a legal document and would be subject to open records law.