A few years ago, the Salinas Police Department, under the leadership of since-retired Chief Kelly McMillin, conducted what I considered to be a remarkable exercise with local media: They opened their doors and invited us in.

It was that simple. They reached out to every news agency that covered them and put us in a room with command staff so they could try to understand our needs and we could try to understand theirs. It was all going pretty well, until one of the television guys eager-beavered his way into talking about all of the ways the media could help the police solve crimes. I winced – and while I thought I winced inwardly, I apparently winced noticeably – and one of the cops asked me what the problem was.

I measured my words carefully and said something like this: It’s never our intention to interfere with police in the course of doing their work, but it’s also not our mission to act as an ad hoc investigative wing and help them solve crimes.

The temperature of the room dropped. While I can’t say it impacted our ongoing relationship with the SPD negatively, it’s safe to say it didn’t do much to improve it. (Although, to be fair, I think we’ve always been treated fairly, and vice versa.)

The relationship between local law enforcement and media has been on my mind because, as of late, it’s taken a giant step backward, thanks to the advent of new technology. Countywide, law enforcement agencies have switched their radio communications to what’s known as a Next Generation Public Safety Radio System, or NGEN, as a way of facilitating better communications. It also complies with the Federal Communications Commission’s mandate that communication towers update narrowband technology.

The problem is that NGEN is encrypted. That means no more listening to scanner traffic, and possibly catching early wind of stories, for reporters.

While Weekly reporters aren’t scanner vultures spending every waking minute hovering over the scanner in the hopes of catching one big call, it’s a tool we use. And when the people in the newsroom use it – to report on accidents that are going to screw up everyone’s commute, or how a fire is going to keep parts of the county inaccessible – we do it because it’s important.

For the media in general, I’d call encryption a big deal: Something we and the public once had access to has now been taken away by the government.

As the Weekly reported in its June 8 issue, when NGEN was rolled out, the Monterey County Law Enforcement Officer Association (MCLEOA) said in a statement that for the safety of first responders, they would not issue encryption keys or otherwise allow non-law enforcement groups to listen in. The MCLEOA, under advice from attorneys, said it didn’t want to have to define what constituted a news outlet, should it consider issuing encryption keys.

On June 29, the Weekly, along with the Monterey HeraldSalinas Californian, KION TV and First Amendment Coalition, sent a letter to the leadership of the MCLEOA suggesting the association could advance digital technology and promote public safety while still supporting fair media access and use of scanners as a newsgathering tool. It also said that California Evidence Code has already defined what constitutes a media organization.

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The letter was also supported by the California News Publishers Association, which counts Weekly Publisher Erik Cushman as a board member.

On July 13, Weekly Editor Sara Rubin, along with KION/KMUV-Telemundo General Manager Kristy Santiago, were allowed to attend an MCLEOA meeting and further plead their case, with a number of pretty strict rules in place. No photographers or recording was allowed. The two were allowed a total of 10 minutes to present. They weren’t allowed to ask any questions, although the members could ask questions of them. (Rubin asked if I could come along to observe, and that request was denied.)

In all, the journalists’ presentation lasted less than 10 minutes and nobody had any questions. As of this writing, on July 18, Rubin hasn’t heard back on whether the media would be granted an encryption key.

We’ll let you know if it happens, but I ain’t optimistic.

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