Con: Public can help police by listening to what's happening
May 9, 2010 at 12:09 a.m.
Updated May 10, 2010 at 12:10 a.m.
FCC privacy act
The Federal Communications Commission's Electronic Communications Privacy Act says it is illegal to use scanners for the following:
To listen in on cellular and cordless phone calls.
To intercept encrypted or scrambled communications.
To sell or import radio scanners that are capable of receiving cellular phone frequencies. (Note: This rule does not apply to sales by people and radio scanners made before 1985).
To modify radio scanners so that cellular phone frequencies can be received.
To use information you hear for personal gain. A common example is when a taxi driver listens to a competitor's dispatch channel for fare pick-ups and then races over and picks-up the fares.
To use information you hear to aid in the commission of a crime.
To disclose information you hear to other people.
When 56-year-old Gary Janicek turns on his scanner in a few months, silence will replace the sounds of ambulance calls and police dispatches.
"I think people should be allowed to listen in because of freedom of information," said Janicek, a Victoria resident. "I live in the country where there are no real rapid responses. If I hear ambulances, I turn the scanner on and know to watch my property a little closer."
Laura Prather, an Austin attorney and president of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said the repercussions of encrypting the radio system's transmissions could heavily impact the media's ability to report the news.
"Informing the public through scanners is a part of the newsgathering process that is protected by the First Amendment," Prather said. "If the media can't get the word out (about an emergency situation) because they have to wait to hear about the situation from first responders, then just think how many people could get hurt."
Prather said media outlets in San Antonio went through the same debate about radio encryption. However, they were eventually able to overcome the dilemma.
"The media stood up and said, 'No,'" she said. "It's a tragedy waiting to happen."
Prather responded to Victoria Police Department's claims that the encryption feature will prevent criminals from listening in to radio broadcasts.
"If they are worried about who will use the information, then why not set up an encrypted channel the media can use?" Prather said. "The answer is not some Draconian approach to shut off access to everyone."
Some residents who are not part of the media also maintain they shouldn't be left out of the information loop for various reasons.
Loretta Watkins, 70, said the city should allow another group of individuals to listen in to the transmissions.
"Family members (of emergency crews) should be able to listen to it. That would be fair," said Watkins, a Victoria resident.
Victoria resident Joan Aucera, 70, said scanners increase neighborhood safety.
"People should be able to listen in," she said. "People don't visit with their neighbors like they used to. If you have a problem in your neighborhood, the only way to find out is to listen in to the scanners."
She continued, "If my neighbor is in physical trouble, perhaps their house is on fire, I can get information about it on the scanner and go help them."
Victoria resident Jeff Williams expressed similar thoughts.
"I believe some people who monitor scanners contribute to the overall effectiveness of law enforcement as they add another level of observation to what is going on around us," said the 50-year-old.
For others, the shutting down of scanners means the demise of an entertaining pastime.
"I knew two elderly ladies who used to listen in, and that was their access to know what's going on in the world. It gave them something to do," said 47-year-old Nursery resident Melinda Geistmen.
Even though the future may look bleak for scanner users, listeners like Janicek are confident this digital switch and encryption will be an issue they can overcome.
"When it comes to electronic systems, somewhere someone is going to have a chip or tinker behind the system that they are going to use to scan," Janicek said.
Related story:Pro: Police need to keep criminals from knowing too much