Retiring police scanners from newsrooms
By Renée Francoeur
What was the single most terrifying device to me as a greenhorn daily news reporter back in the day? The police scanner. The bulky black box with the red light had sat ominously on the assistant city editor’s desk. It was almost always on. And if you happened to be the lone wolf reporter in that weekend, it was up to you to make the call to follow-up with what you happened to hear.
I honestly tried to ignore the scanner. I have always been a better feature story gatherer than an ambulance-chasing, hard news scooper. When push came to shove, I preferred using various vetted sources on social media for real-time updates regarding road incidents or reports of fires. The police scanner was just too raw with too much uncertainty. I felt like a spy.
Fast forward to 2019 and now media outlets in Regina and Saskatoon no longer have access to police scanner channels, joining many other Canadian municipalities, like Toronto and Edmonton.
The change in Saskatchewan comes to comply with the Local Authority Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy legislation. Essentially, the services have to protect personal information and the right to privacy. Things cannot be disclosed without consent.
The act allows media and civilians to file freedom of information requests to obtain records not otherwise publicly disclosed.
According to the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, Regina Police Chief Evan Bray sent a letter to the four media outlets in the city. In it, he said information including names, addresses, dates of birth, past criminal charges and other pieces of personal information were previously shared on the dispatch channel.
“Protecting the private information of individuals and maintaining the integrity of investigations is not possible if all information held by police is made public; the legislation recognizes this and provides a framework for responsible disclosure,” the Regina Police Service said in an emailed statement, according to that article.
It’s indeed time to retire the police scanners from newsrooms.
We live in a world where social media users are live tweeting positions of officers during active threat situations, where Facebook privacy lapses are routine headlines, where people are handing over personal information through apps without a second thought in exchange for a peek at what they’ll possibly look like in 30 years.
“Personal information is a treasure trove. Everybody wants it. And everyone has the potential to abuse it. The possibilities are endless,” writes Ann Cavoukian, the executive director of the Global Privacy and Security by Design Centre, in a Toronto Life article.
Cavoukian was the Information and Privacy Commissioner for Ontario from 1997 to 2014 and I interviewed her for a story when I was writing about smart cities and CCTV for SP&T News in 2017. She changed my understanding of privacy, data and third-party usage, and subsequently the way I use my smartphone.
“Privacy isn’t about secrecy,” Cavoukian continued in the Life article. “It’s about retaining personal control over your information—over your own life.”
This retention of control is necessary and you as law enforcement agencies have a role to play. Police in Saskatchewan have said they are still going to share information and that is the key here.
Reporters, in my opinion, don’t rely on the scanners the way they did in the past. There are so many more tools now. Plus, news hounds are trained to cultivate their curiosity. They are always digging deeper—or should be. They’re creative and innovative, and so I have absolute faith they will find new ways to chase police story leads—with or without bulky black boxes in newsrooms.