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A Pandemic Shortage Of Law Enforcement Transparency

Many news organizations covering police and crime news are finding it more difficult to gather information as police departments are encrypting their radio dispatch traffic.

So says Dan Shelley, president of the Radio Television Digital News Association.

Speaking on an annual conference call sponsored by Criminal Justice Journalists, Shelley says the encryption practices have "hampered journalists’ ability to cover the news in real time. In a couple of exceptions, law enforcement has provided newsrooms with encryption keys or codes so that journalists can monitor what they are doing.

"This issue has been making the news in New York City, the Bay Area, and a few communities in between. I call it a pandemic of the lack of transparency on the part of law enforcement agencies. The subject should get more media coverage. It’s having a big impact on the ability of journalists to cover crime in real time in their communities."

Shelley believes that after national controversies after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and similar incidents, "there has been a general trend among law enforcement agencies to become less transparent to the public in terms of what they are doing"

He complained that many police public information officers "are not advocates for the public but rather for the police departments they work for. What they release to the public may be either inaccurate or almost exclusively paint their department in a good light, and conversely, try to hide problems within agencies."

Brandt Williams of Minnesota Public Radio agreed that "police are more opaque these days. They are circling the wagons. They feel that the media are antagonistic towards them when we ask for information about why they do what they do."

Williams added that, "One possibly brighter side is that as we’ve been covering cities like Minneapolis in responding to police calls that can result in their using deadly force against people who are experiencing mental health crises and exhibiting dangerous behaviors. Counseling might avoid the use of deadly force. Law enforcement groups have been in favor of that."

The comments about police transparency were part of a broader discussion of media coverage of crime and justice issues over the past year.

Other participants in the call were criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University, William Freivogel of the Gateway Journalism Review and Southern Illinois University and Marea Mannion of Pennsylvania State University.

Among other topics discussed were coverage of crime statistics used by political candidates, mass shootings, and bail releases.

A transcript of the discussion can be seen at the Criminal Justice Journalists' website.


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