"There is no public safety in public ignorance"

The Most Powerful Crimefighting Tool?

Can something as bland and unsightly as a communications tower be the most underrated crimefighting tool ever? Can a communications tower serve as the purest scope for public scrutiny against menacing social tyranny the free world has ever appreciated?


Welcome to the debate of open system versus closed system. A debate spawned by a growing trend towards closed public safety communications systems. Systems, by intent or design, that rip away the once easy ability to monitor police activity in local communities using inexpensive radio scanners, or other means.

It's happening everywhere. County by county, city by city, public safety officials are heeding the call of cramped air space and the promise of increased flexibility to upgrade their radio communication systems. Upgrading doesn't simply refer to computerized controls, information input and output devices, tracking hardware, or call-taking tools. Upgrading in the latter half of the 20th century generally means taking advantage of an entirely new radio paradigm known as digitalization. From a systems flexibility standpoint, digitalization is the best thing to come to public safety communications since Marconi.

Digitalization is the process of breaking up audible sounds into data more resembling the information that flows through your PC than the analog information that is processed by your tabletop radio. It is extremely analogous to listening to your favorite radio station over the Internet where programming is encoded digitally, then streamed and decoded by your PC using software such as Real Audio. In fact, the equipment used by public safety in the field might well be regarded as stripped-down PCs dedicated to two-way voice and data communications. The problem for hobby scannists, crime-watch groups, journalists, or the independent curiosity seeker is that much like the inability of tabletop radios to decode streaming Real Audio data, traditional tabletop scanners cannot decode digital public safety communications. The positive attributes of such transparency, in turn, are eliminated at the community level.

There is a bright side to the revolution of digital radio systems implementation: they offer unprecedented flexibility to the host agency, increased security and confidentiality, and some say improved voice clarity. However, there is a darker side that even a minority of public safety agency officials will openly embrace. That is that community members are suddenly shut out from the otherwise completely public process of crimefighting, and the security of instant community awareness.

Up until now, it was easy to be part of either. With conventional communication systems you could listen. Listen for yourself what newspapers and TV journalists only filter and relay to you third-hand in the spirit of history but not fact. You needed no governmental permission, you needed no special skill, you needed no special status, and you needed no special reason. You could listen all you wanted and it didn't matter because you were lucky enough to be born in the United States of America. And while it never occurred to anyone to make sure you could continue to listen as a guaranteed right, who thought it would matter here? After all, our local police aren't supposed to work like secret police.

In bringing this development to explicit public attention, many feel that the Open Broadcasting rhetoric is merely defending the right of hobbyists to play with police scanners. We are desperate to convince you that something far more sinister is at stake as a silent social asset is undergoing extinction. For now, yes, scanner radios are the most efficient access tool in reaping these seemingly obscure benefits. However, since increased digitalization and less reliance on actual voice communications will render something referred to as a "police scanner" irrelevant over time we're not talking about the means so much as we are discussing the philosophy harbored by public safety agencies. In effect we're talking about recognizing and establishing the value of live open and proactive public safety broadcasts for use by the public at large.

Back when merely trunking public safety communications was a problem (now resolved thanks to the latest breed of radio scanners that can follow trunked signals), David Pinero (an Open Broadcasting campaigner) contacted his local sheriff's office to find out how he might continue to monitor them after their reported transition to a trunked radio system. The head administrator of the Hillsborough County Florida system at the time, who we'll safely call "John", went so far as to humorously explain outright that the public is why agencies went trunked to begin with. To quote the master of public relations, agencies built trunked systems to thwart "people like me". For those of you keeping tabs, that would mean people like you, too. In fact, it could be anybody with a contrary social opinion or anybody simply considered annoying. The reality is that public safety agencies typically convert to more complex radio systems to take better advantage of technology first. Other reasons are ancillary. This was the case when public safety agencies began converting to trunked systems, and today as they adopt digital technology.

However erroneous, John's banter in and of itself is a powerful revelation as to why open broadcasting is important in a free society. As John so accidentally demonstrated, closed systems promote an incorrect perception of our democratic society which is that this is a world of us and them...wherever you happen to draw that line personally.

Trunking and digital technology are inconvenient enough for fluid public absorption, but there is yet another level altogether that can be outright treacherous. Some particularly inclined officials add the extremely expensive component of encryption to their systems. While these encryption systems can be selective in what they actually encrypt, public safety often takes this ability and encrypts everything. That means super-secret surveillance operations, citizen vitals (such as name and address of victims and perpetrators), and basic patrolcasts. Some even encrypt fire and medical communications.

Naturally, Open Broadcasting does not criticize the encryption of communications directly related to officer safety or operational security. More to the point, we believe that the first-time ability to selectively encrypt these kinds of communications actually enhances the freedom to openly broadcast patrolcasts and other forms of public-relevant communication. For the sake of the pro-access argument, patrolcasts are those broadcasts related to the fundamental patrol duty of police officers. They are the primary exchange of communications between officer and dispatcher as the officer is sent from one spontaneous call for service to another. Because the utility argument of the pro-access standpoint involves aiding the average citizen in avoiding critical situations, such as police pursuits, patrolcasts include those situations of dire emergency as well. Others may have perfectly valid definitions of what a patrolcast is, but ours is a good starting point.

As the problem described here is a technical symptom of a philosophical misadoption, the solution to it is purely public safety attitude. Technical solutions are limited in time because any public safety agency that continues to view public listening with hostility, will seek to evade the public with each new technical solution. Digital scanners, for example, can solve the problem but won't solve all of the problem.

Open broadcasting must be recognized as the valuable public service that it is. After all, it is the premier example of something trendy called Community Policing in which police work to integrate the community with the crimefighting process through open dialog and trust. It is about the exchange of information and breaking down the barriers of access to the police that has existed for decades.

It's About Communication! In fact, it is all about communication. And the simple truth is that at least one solution to the communication problem has existed for over 60 years. That solution has been Open Broadcasting. It has existed for decades as a means for the individual to mentally participate in the crimefighting process, develop pro-police attitudes, and aid themselves and public safety in countless meaningful ways.

Open Broadcasting recognizes not just a public safety issue, but one of individual liberty as well. For example, In Hillsborough County Florida it had been reported that the "select" media would have access to live patrolcasts while average citizens would not. If this sounds like state government sponsoring "selected" corporate media it's because it is. When the government aligns itself with media, making a political game out of access to live broadcasts or other forms of public information, you and I as individuals literally become mental slaves of the media. You get the point! Who is the media and why should public safety agencies be given the broad power to officially yet arbitrarily ascertain that in your community?

We know that more than ever our public safety administrators are educated, well-meaning, and informed. They are capable of great strides in crime reduction through effective management, and they openly preach the prospects of civilian involvement in the communication process. Why should we question the sincerity of hearts when we hear such sincere words?

A communications tower depicted at the head of this essay is a symbol of the greatest, most efficient crimefighting tool ever devised. It is the symbol of wide-area, lightening speed, inexpensive, and efficient communication. It is up to those in power to recognize and adopt philosophies that transcend their technological upgrades and preserve citizen access to public safety communications. Radio scanner manufacturers (such as Uniden and its Trunk Tracker) should not be our only salvation. It is worth reiterating that for every technology introduced to enable public listening, hostile public safety officials will surmount that technology with something more vicious. It's getting cheaper to do every day.

Issue three challenges to your local government if they are considering maintaining a closed broadcast communications system:

  • Challenge them to view an open broadcast system as a public safety benefit
  • Challenge them to keep open broadcasting available in your area, in any number of ways
  • Challenge them to make it all count

The penalty for inactive communities on this issue will be the gradual but dramatic conversion of a public safety communications system, into a public ignorance communications system.

If history has taught us anything, it is that there is no safety, or freedom, in ignorance.

"There is no public safety in public ignorance"