IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Kentucky City to Nix Public Access to Police Scanner Traffic

Owensboro, Ky., elected officials were largely in agreement with decisions by the city’s police and fire departments to stop broadcasting radio transmissions over publicly accessible radio channels.

A police officer looks at the computer inside of their patrol car.
(TNS) — Owensboro elected officials were largely in agreement with decisions by Owensboro Police Department and Owensboro Fire Department officials to stop broadcasting radio transmissions over publicly accessible radio channels.

Although some commissioners expressed that a way should be worked out to inform the public of potential emergencies, or to inform the media of events, they concurred with OPD and OFD officials’ concerns about broadcasting police and fire calls where the public could hear them.

Last week, OPD, OFD and the Daviess County Sheriff’s Office’s radio transmissions were “encrypted” by Central Dispatch, at the request of the heads of the three agencies.

City-county 911 Director Paul Nave said the decision to encrypt the transmissions was made several months ago by the agency leadership.

Radio messages from the three agencies can no longer be heard by the public. Hearing them now requires a police radio that is specifically programmed for OPD, OFD and sheriff’s office messages.

Officials gave several reasons why the messages were encrypted, including a need to protect privacy of medical patients who’s information could be given out over police radios, and the potential for people to use police scanners to monitor law enforcement’s response during crimes.

Another issue was information about incidents being broadcast over radios and posted on social media, law enforcement officials said Monday.

Having open radio traffic created what officials described as opportunities for identity theft and private information and incorrect initial reports to be disseminated across social media.

City Mayor Tom Watson said he agreed with a concern from law enforcement officials that scanner traffic could attract people to crime scenes or incidents.

“My only thought is you don’t want to draw a crowd to a tragic event,” Watson said.

Watson said responders should have time to work an incident without members of the general public receiving information from the police scanner.

“I don’t see any reason why the public should have access to that information,” Watson said. “Let’s say we had a hostage situation, and 45 people show up with their cell phones, trying to tell the story first.

“A private citizen doesn’t need to be in the middle of it,” Watson said.

OPD Deputy Chief JD Winkler said Monday OPD officials had decided to not allow news media access to encrypted transmissions.

When asked if media should have access to police and fire transmissions, Watson said, “I think you should leave that information to the professionals.”

Mayor Pro Tem Mark Castlen said he was concerned about agencies saying people were going to incident scenes they’d heard about through scanner traffic.

“The safety of the public is a very important part of the issue, especially when people are jumping in their cars and going to a scene, or finding out a loved one was involved in an accident or committed suicide,” Castlen said. “It’s something I’ve heard mentioned by the departments a couple of times.

“It’s a hindrance, crowds gathering at a site, or people trying to beat the police” to a site, Castlen said.

Other agencies across the country have also encrypted their radio transmissions. Louisville Metro Police Department encrypted their traffic in 2022, going to a system that delays the transmission to a public channel for 15 minutes.

Regarding a similar system, Castlen said, “I don’t see a problem with it as long as the department heads” agree.

“They know that job better than you or I,” Castlen said.

On news media access, Caslten said, “everybody likes to claim they are a news channel anymore, and where do you draw the line on who is a news channel?”

Castlen said commissioners could review the change in the future and make changes if necessary.

Commissioner Pam Smith-Wright said she was familiar with the issue, but hadn’t formed an opinion.

“The only thing I know is I’ve never been that interested” in following scanner traffic, Smith-Wright said. “I’ve never had a police radio.”

Having access to scanner information “could be good in a way, if something is happening in your neighborhood,” Smith-Wright said. “But I really don’t have a particular feeling about it, because I was never interested in it.”

Commissioner Bob Glenn said the issue is “technology has caught up with scanners.”

“The biggest issue is privacy for victims” and officers, Glenn said.

Glenn referenced a May fatal collision on New Hartford Road, and said, “there were people who posted (the victim’s) name before (law enforcement) had a chance to notify her family.”

Glenn said he was opposed to people using police scanner traffic “for prurient interest.”

Regarding news media, Glenn said he would like the city to do something akin to the Daviess County Sheriff’s Department, where officials created a incident map on their website.

The map, Sheriff Brad Youngman said previously, would be updated twice daily, and would be searchable, but would not be in real time.

Glenn said new media outlets could make arrangements to have access to law enforcement information.

“I would envision you would have to strengthen your ties with (agency public information officers) to create a back channel” for information, Glenn said.

“I doubt that the intent was to shut out the media,” Glenn said later. “I really do think it’s protection of the victims and protection of their personnel.”

Commissioner Sharon NeSmith said agencies do need a way to inform the public of events that potentially affect large numbers of the public.

But people involved in incidents with an emergency response are entitled to privacy, NeSmith said.

“I don’t think we need to know every little detail,” NeSmith said, but, “I do have a concern: How do we learn about large events?”

NeSmith said: “I still trust the leadership in each department. They had to have good reasons” to encrypt the radio traffic.

© 2024 the Messenger-Inquirer (Owensboro, Ky.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.