Secret Scanners, Censored Stories and Why Should You Care, NH

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Bob Charest's laptop and police scanner

By Bob Charest
InDepthNH.org

The airwaves are quieter, but that’s not such a good thing.

Bob Charest

Bob Charest

When I was first married, oh, so many years ago, it always seemed like there was a third person in bed with us. I would be lulled to sleep by the soothing voices, the crackling musical tones, and the static-backed quips of both males and females talking to me, telling me things like:

“One-five-three, please step it up Code Three.”

“This is a 10-50. Medical examiner has been notified.”

“Rollover at Exit 3. No PI reported. Fire is rolling.”

Yes, we slept with my police scanner. Until my wife decided it was too much. It might have been interesting for a while, but we both had to get up early the next morning.  I still snuck in a listen every now and again, when she went off to bed early, or when she left before I did for work.

(An interesting sidebar: The people who introduced us had a police scanner installed in their car – now that’s hard core – and they’d ride around a large Massachusetts city looking for action. The wife was a nurse, and once a police officer asked her to crawl into an overturned car on the highway to check an accident victim’s pulse.)

To say I was big into listening to the police scanner for the bulk of my career as a journalist would be something of an understatement. I covered many interesting stories that got their start with the shrill squawk of a panicked dispatcher. And later when I was more or less a casual listener at home, I’d constantly be calling the newspaper to alert them to something I heard. The night editor would see my number on her caller ID and pick up the phone saying, “Yes, Mr. Charest, we heard about the ….”

What can I say? I was hooked.

Now before I get going on this month’s topic, let me start by saying that any good journalist knows you can’t trust most of what you hear on a police scanner. It seems every accident is a “rollover,” and I don’t know how many times I’ve sent a photographer to an accident scene, only to be told that the report of persons being pinned was a case of the doors not opening because of the force of the crash. That’s why every time I hear some reputed news source reporting something heard via police communications or attributed in some other way, obviously overheard on the police scanner, I don’t trust the report at all.

But when I heard that the Manchester Police Department last month started encrypting all its radio transmissions, a small tear fell from my eye.

I surfed scanner sites (Radioreference.com is a great one) and saw post after post about how this is happening in places both big and small around the country, and the scanner enthusiasts obviously are pretty much livid.

As for the rest of us, should we care?

My answer is a resounding yes.

Manchester Police went to an encrypted system Sept. 9 after a new $5.8 million radio system was installed the week before.  According to the police department’s statement, reported by the New Hampshire Union Leader, the encrypted channels help to keep police officers safe and protect the privacy of citizens.

As soon as people started realizing their Manchester police frequencies had gone silent (There was no public announcement in advance), public officials started to get calls. The commentary sections of the newspaper’s website were filled with complaints by people who weren’t too happy.

Assistant Police Chief Carlo Capano was quoted as saying the police commissioners and aldermen were notified about the radio switch.

In a follow-up article published Sept. 18, other police and fire departments around the state were surveyed, and the state’s other major cities as well as the State Police planned to keep using open police channels, with some saying encryption would continue to be used for more sensitive operations, such as a SWAT action or a drug raid.

In fact, Manchester Fire Chief Dan Goonan said his department’s transmissions were not encrypted, and he was quoted as saying it never even crossed his mind to close their system. (Note to Chief Goonan: Thank you on behalf of news reporters everywhere because, truth be told, hearing it on the fire frequency was usually how we knew something was a big deal, especially when an ambulance was dispatched.)

When Alderman-At-Large Joseph Kelly Levasseur on Sept. 20 made a motion before the Board of Mayor and Aldermen to direct the department to revert to unencrypted transmissions, his motion failed on a 1-13 voice vote, with Levasseur the only one in favor. I guess that tells us encrypted transmissions are here to stay on the Manchester police frequencies.

Manchester Police Chief Nick Willard made what I consider a half-hearted attempt to appease some of his critics when he announced via his Twitter account on Sept. 22: “The Manchester Police Department website will now provide a Police Log calls for service. The police log can be accessed by logging into www.manchesternh.gov/Departments/Police.

“You will find the Manchester Police Department Patch located on the right side of the page with ‘Police Log’ under the patch. By clicking on the patch, you can view the previous 24 hour calls for service.

“The log will indicate the date and time of the call, location and details with a case number. The calls for service will be downloaded at 12:01 AM providing the previous 24 hour calls for service, storing a 7-day loop of information.”

That wasn’t even throwing people a bone. Have you looked at this log? It is written in this manner:

09/27/2016 14:45: GRANITE ST/ELM ST, P16098173, ARGUMENT

09/27/2016 15:13: 139 MIDDLE ST, P16098178, BURGLARY IN PROGRESS

09/27/2016 17:05: 125 BRIDGE ST, PULASKI PARK, P16098219 FIGHT

09/27/2016 20:56: 106 W RIVER DR, COLONIAL VILLAGE, P16098280, DEATH

 

That last entry, ending in “death,” raises more questions than answers for me. I think it would for you, too, especially if you lived in that apartment complex.

Scanner listening has always been more of an art form, if the truth be told. Many departments use special codes and abbreviations, and there is a bit of a learning curve. For instance, somebody well versed in the lingo would know that a Code Gray is a dead body, a PI is personal injury, and a 10-50 is a homicide. Some departments use these 10-codes and other lingo. Some do not. I found that a well-trained ear helps tremendously, and I automatically tune in when I hear the words “medical examiner” or “Call the Attorney General’s Office.”

Also valuable is the tone of voice of the officer calling in, especially if that person is out of breath, high-pitched, or obviously in a foot chase or scuffle with somebody. That gave me some idea of what importance I would assign the call.

All of that detail is missing with the police log supplied above. It first off lacks immediacy, which is something I consider important, especially if there is a wild beast or person running around a neighborhood, a bad crash to avoid, or a fire that is threatening the safety of someone I know.

But more importantly, a police log is helpful – I’ll concede that to Chief Willard – but in place of open scanner communications, it lacks transparency, and that is chiefly what we should all be concerned about.

It just so happens that a few weeks ago, an important hearing on the privacy rights of victims was heard by the state Supreme Court. (Please see last month’s column for a discussion of that issue.) That hearing on Sept. 21 covered a lot of ground of concern to everyone, but I especially urge journalists and others concerned with transparency issues to watch the full hearing. During the oral arguments, Associate Justice Robert J. Lynn asked the question I think should be asked time and time again for the preservation of our democracy, in many discussions that should take place often in a free and democratic society.

Justice Lynn was addressing another issue, the appeals process as it applies to the state’s rape shield law, but he at one point asked, “How does the public know if they don’t have access if we’ve done it correctly?” I believe his question can be applied here: How does the public know its police department is doing its job correctly if they have limited access to the information?

You may view the hearing yourself, and Justice Lynn’s comments, which come at a little over nine minutes at this link.

Although the airwaves were quieter last month, transparency is what really went silent in Manchester.

*****

When I started writing this column a little over a month ago, my intention was to keep it current and tackle the issues involving your right to know and the technological aspects of privacy that are developing as I write about them. I wondered then if I would have enough material to keep it going. I needn’t have worried.

This past month, we had all kinds of issues involving privacy and First Amendment concerns. Not only did we have a hearing at the state Supreme Court involving privacy rights related to the state’s rape shield law, we also read the announcement that the 90-year-old Laconia Citizen was closing its doors for good on Sept. 30, and the decision by the Manchester Police Department to encrypt all of its radio transmissions.

There were many other First Amendment issues right here in New Hampshire during the past month: The folks in Salisbury who challenged their school board under the state’s right-to-know law and won; the Nashua Telegraph editor who resigned his position because he was being forced by a higher-up to censor a story about the newspaper; and the Executive Council being flummoxed by news that Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, just awarded a $36.5 million contract to staff New Hampshire Hospital, was not told in advance about the upcoming layoffs of hundreds elsewhere in the D-H system.

Since this column is called “Why Should You Care, NH?”, my job as I see it is to convince you in this fast-paced world we all live in that these issues are extremely important to you. After all, we are talking about your freedom, now and in the future, and even though right now some of these issues seem a little hazy, as technology improves and laws evolve, it will become amazingly clear how important these issues are to you as we face the problems of the 21st Century. Your rights are being challenged in all sorts of ways, and I hope to keep showing you how.

Bob Charest has served as a consultant to InDepthNH.org for the past year, assisting founder Nancy West with editing and writing foundation materials. In his next column, he’ll tackle the question: Do you have a right to be left alone?

Charest has been in the news business since 1977. He has worked at newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire as a reporter and editor. A graduate of Boston University, he has been involved in volunteer advocacy work that has included speaking up for people living in institutions, group homes and foster care.  He has consulted with InDepthNH.org on editing and grant proposals since before its founding last September and also leads a watershed association that monitors water quality at a small New Hampshire lake. 

He has been interested in the advances in technology and how they have affected our privacy in America. “The country seems stuck on the same issues, especially during this election cycle, which are leading us toward becoming more divisive rather than more cohesive. The same discussions about race, guns and abortion seem to leave us all mired in a pattern of talking back and forth at each other, taking our eyes off other important issues. Some of the world’s top scientists are warning us that we are only a decade or so away from computers becoming smarter than humans. That’s troubling.”

He will explore issues that involve technology and privacy in this column, which he promises to write once a month.

 

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