Day in and day out, NBC Palm Springs, KESQ, and The Desert Sun all compete to bring you the very latest, most accurate and best news possible.
But today, the Coachella Valley’s three news outlets stand together in opposition to a decision supported by several local police departments to remove police radio scanners from our newsrooms.
Most every station in the country has access to police scanners as a way to inform the public on breaking news situations like road closures, active shooter situations, fires, natural disasters, and much more.
But recently, the Eastern Riverside County Interoperable Communications Authority (ERICA) has blocked the encrypted radio traffic into our newsrooms. It’s a move the Coachella Valley’s journalists feel is a threat to public safety.
Executive Editor of The Desert Sun Julie Makinen said, “Warning the public away from areas of fire, terrorism, shootings is benefiting the public’s safety.”
But that public safety may now be at risk because a critical device in local newsrooms has gone silent.
“We have no scanner traffic,” said Timothy Kiley, the Assistant News Director at KESQ.
The scanners–as we refer to it–gives the media basic access to hear what local police are dealing with in real time. But the radio traffic at NBC Palm Springs and KESQ is now quiet.
“They stated that because of recent changes in the law, as far as privacy goes, that they just did not want media to have access to their scanners,” said Kiley.
“This is flat out a public safety issue. The information that we get on the scanners allows us to tell the public to avoid areas because of road closures, evacuation notices or a live shooter situation,” explained NBC Palm Springs News Director Gino LaMont.
On November 8th, the Eastern Riverside County Interoperable Communications Authority (ERICA), changed its policy. The group operates the encrypted radio channels used by our local police departments.
In a statement, ERICA said, ”In an effort to further protect the private, confidential information of individuals, such as victims of violent crimes, minors, and others, and improve the safety of law enforcement officers and members of the public, the Board of ERICA has taken action to limit access to ERICA’s encrypted channels. Access to encrypted channels shall be limited to law enforcement and other qualified personnel.“
Makinen said the decision by ERICA was shocking. “Well we were stunned about it because we’ve never had any complaints from any law enforcement authorities that access to this information has caused any problems either for officers, for people involved in crimes, as victims or perpetrators.”
Makinen said she believes The Desert Sun’s ability to listen in is crucial to keeping the Coachella Valley informed and safe. “If there is a massive fire, a terrorist attack or a school shooting, it’s a way for us to learn about it quickly and disseminate it quickly to the public.”
Tim Kiley said he also agrees, “The scanners let us know where there might be something, where we need to look. We don’t use the scanners to report information. We use it to be in the right place and ask the right questions.”
However, the decision to revoke the media’s access to local police radios is backed up by several local police chiefs.
“The decision that was made, as far as ERICA and specifically Desert Hot Springs, recently to eliminate media’s access to the encrypted radios was because of privacy act information that we are required to keep private,” said Desert Hot Springs Police Chief Dale Mondary.
Tim Crews, the President of Californians Aware, said he disagrees with ERICA’s reasoning for revoking local media’s access to police radios. “The privacy claim is nonsense. The other problem with it is it’s on the public airways and the airways belong to the citizens of the United States, and not to some little joint operating agreement in Riverside County. They have no right to censor it.”
Both Palm Springs Police Chief Bryan Reyes and Chief Dale Mondary said they are just following orders from the Department of Justice.
Chief Bryan Reyes said, “I don’t see why any agency would want to walk down that path, when we’ve been put on notice by the Department of Justice that this cannot continue in the manner that we have. At the end of the day, we answer to DOJ because DOJ gives us the authority to access airways, and again the police radio is our life line, and if we violate those rules, they have the authority to pull the plug.”
Palm Springs City Attorney Edward Kotkin said they are simply complying with the law. “If we continue to provide the access that’s going to be in violation of the applicable regulations and statues and our access to the system to the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (CLETS) that we depend on so heavily everyday, that will terminate, and the community won’t be as safe.”
But with no ability to hear what is going on, Makinen argued that is more unsafe for the community. “Would you really want to keep driving toward a fire? If we could warn you away from it?”
NBC Palm Springs reporter Lauren Day asked Chief Reyes, “Without our ability to hear the radio traffic, how are we supposed to know when to warn the public about a breaking news situation?”
To which Chief Reyes responded, “For breaking news situations, follow our Facebook, our Twitter. We are very active on a variety of social media platforms, and we are consistent on updating that.”
So going forward, Chief Mondary said, “We have and we will continue to push those situations out as rapidly and immediately as we can.”
“We will continue to look at ways to be much more transparent and get you stuff in real time and much more detail,” said Chief Reyes.
But NBC Palm Springs, KESQ, and The Desert Sun all agree, waiting on police for information is just not timely enough for your safety.
“The idea that we can wait until police officials put it up on their Twitter account is absurd. They are busy handling the emergency situation. Social media is not their focus, so by the time they tell us and we tell the public, it is too late,” said LaMont.
Talking about safety, Makinen said, “If we have to wait for public safety officials to brief us or to let us know that something is going on, there could be delays of hours. That’s not efficient nor does it put the public safety first.”
In a statement to NBC Palm Springs, the California Department of Justice said, “Pursuant to the CLETS Policies, Practices and Procedures and the FBI CJIS Security Policy it has always been the case that only authorized personnel may have access for criminal justice purposes to any channels where CLETS data is being broadcast.” The statement went on to say, “The CA DOJ did not ask ERICA to revoke media’s access to ERICA. As stated above, it is standard policy that only authorized personnel for criminal justice purposes are entitled access to CLETS data.”