Apr 13 2012 The “commercialization” by news media of the last words of a dying York Regional Police officer last summer has police forces across Ontario closing ranks to stop rebroadcasts and online streaming of officers’ radio communications.
An Ontario-led Canada-wide police initiative is insisting that the federal government introduce legislation to shut down the online streaming of police radio communications by individuals, now involving a proliferation of listeners fuelled by phone apps, and to prevent media rebroadcasts. Police say they have been left with no choice but to demand legislation after efforts to discuss their concerns were rebuffed by senior management at media outlets, particularly in the Toronto area.
Cst. Garrett Styles was fatally injured during a traffic stop in Newmarket on June 28. As he lay dying, pinned under a vehicle, he was in radio communication with a police dispatcher. That conversation was intercepted, rebroadcast and even transcribed with news of his death by many radio and television stations and news websites in Toronto. It was widely reported before police could even notify his wife that her husband had died in the line of duty. Styles left behind a two-year-old daughter and nine-month-old baby boy.
“The (police) chiefs and the commissioner of the OPP, well many of us, found this rather disturbing,” said Joe Couto, a spokesman for the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police.
“We have been very frustrated to be honest with you because no one will talk to us about this in the media,” said Couto.
“Individual media will talk to us, but generally it is to defend the use (of recordings). But that’s not the point. We don’t want to debate whether or not what you did six months ago was right or wrong. We want to talk about let’s make sure that this type of thing doesn’t happen again,” said Couto.
Police organizations say they received many complaints from the public about media behaviour on the day of Styles’ death.
York Regional Police Chief Eric Jolliffe has lodged a complaint with the CRTC.
What began a few years ago as sporadic streaming of communications by police scanner hobbyists has become so pervasive that police say the intimate details of police work and private lives of Ontarians are now widely available for anyone to hear.
A relatively small number of hobbyists, largely restricted in numbers by cost and technical know-how, have quietly listened to police communications for many years.
“We as police traditionally have never had many issues because people who use scanners are people who like to listen and find that the ultimate reality TV show and that’s great,” said Couto.
Some police forces, such as Ottawa and Cornwall, have long ago encrypted their communications, while others are in the process. Much of the OPP communication in the Ottawa area and Eastern Ontario, however, is unencrypted and can be easily heard online. The website www.radioreference.com, with servers outside Canada, is a major clearing house for these audio streams.
Encrypting radio communications is expensive but guarantees police-only access. The OPP already encrypts more sensitive areas of their work for intelligence, homicide, and drug units. Officers in other areas of policing have come to rely on cellphones for privacy, but police admit non-encrypted radio broadcasts are still required in fast-developing emergencies or when several officers must quickly coordinate their actions.
OPP spokesman Sgt. Pierre Chamberland said the federal Radiocommunications Act makes it clear that listening to unencrypted police communications is legal but divulging that information or making use of it is not. Industry Canada officials concur but its legislation leaves prosecution to the discretion of police. Chamberland said the OPP has chosen to use its resources to fight crime rather than a series of complex investigations where the likely outcome being a small penalty.
“It just becomes a matter of return on investment especially when you have real crimes going on out there,” said Chamberland.
However, the OPP may become encrypted as early as 2017 when Ontario’s communication network, the Government Mobile Communication Project, is up for renewal. Chamberland said senior OPP officials are currently considering making a recommendation to the provincial government to encrypt at that time.
“At the end of the day it is an extremely expensive venture,” said Chamberland.
Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner may one day also become involved in the issue. Thousands of times each day in Canada, the names, addresses, telephone numbers and details of a request for help from the public are captured over police radio by a third party and then streamed online or to a phone potentially breaching privacy laws. These include complete contact details and summaries of cases involving alleged rapes, child abuse, suicide attempts, child custody battles and other family conflicts. The commissioner’s office indicated in an email that both the disclosure by police and dissemination by a third party may violate privacy laws.
Jack Summers, general manger of Toronto based Radioworld, one of the largest scanner retailers in Canada, says he has sold an average 1,000 scanners a year for the past 20 years.
Summers says the actions of the media in the Styles case was “highly illegal” but streaming police communications online remains in the public domain, as do the public airwaves used in the first place. The activity becomes illegal if it is done for personal gain, said Summers.
Speaking of Styles’ death, Summer said: “The media used that signal for personal gain.”
(The Ottawa Citizen)