Is it really in the public’s best interest to have police dispatch calls unencrypted so anybody can hear them?
That’s what one Manteca man thinks and he’s taking his idea to the Internet in an attempt to gather signatures on a petition that he plans on submitting to Mayor Steve DeBrum in an attempt to get the city to reconsider its position.
Joe Molina Jr., an amateur scanner listener that has spent almost three decades listening to what is going on in his area, posted a Change.org petition on his Facebook page on Friday hoping that it would make the social networking rounds and gain some traction with people in the community who want the same thing.
And he has a very real example of how this could have benefitted him in the recent past.
“Just recently near my parent’s house in Manteca there have been two drive-by shootings. My parents are elderly, and have lived in this city since 1972, and they’ve seen their neighborhood deteriorate and their street has become ground zero for some of the worst crime this city sees,” Molina said. “During those shootings I was able to call them immediately, relay to them to shut and lock all their exterior doors and turn on all the lights outside because the police are responding to a shooting. I was only able to tell there was a shooting from monitoring the fire department radio, and their orders were to stage as the scene was unsecured.
“My parents and I have no idea if the suspect was running and jumping into backyards, or possibly hiding out in the neighborhood. They don’t know if it’s safe to come out, or if danger is lurking in their backyard.”
Things weren’t always that way, Molina said, and there were times that knowing what was going on helped make his family safer, but gave him the chance to assist with any information he may have seen as somebody was scaling backyard fences.
“Before the Manteca Police encrypted their radio feed, we had similar acts of violence occur in the neighborhood but we knew exactly what was going on and were made aware that a suspect was jumping fences or trying to flee the scene,” he said. “This provided us valuable time to lock down our house and be on alert, and more importantly, if we saw something suspicious or a suspect matching the description, to call and report it to the police.”
Currently the Manteca Police Department only broadcasts some of its traffic over a channel that can be deciphered by a standard police scanner. The majority of calls – including locations, destinations and the nature of what officers are being sent out to investigate – are reserved for a secure channel that only other secure radios can decipher.
A call seeking comment from the Manteca Police was not immediately returned, but Manteca Police Chief Nick Obligacion has stated in the past that “officer safety” was the reason behind the decision to scramble the previously open lines that anybody with a handheld scanner or even a cell phone could decipher.
According to Molina’s petition, which was 24 people shy of the 100 he set out to gather, a rise in the amount of violent crime has spurred quite a bit of interest from the community who want to monitor what is going on near their homes but they’re unable to do so because of the current encryption model.
“Concerned citizens of Manteca are demanding that the Manteca Police Department remove the encryption on their radio communication system,” Molina wrote. “Due to the escalation of gang activity, violence and vandalism in the city, residents are left unaware of critical events that are occurring.
“By allowing the citizens of this city to monitor police radio traffic, it enables citizens to act as additional eyes and ears to help better protect their own neighborhood and work with the police to combat crime.”
While scrambling communications is legal according to the courts, some major California cities have taken a completely different approach – including links on their websites to monitor the happenings at any given time. Some of those communities, while able to scramble traffic with their communication setup, choose not to except for during extenuating circumstances.
But advocates for officer safety may have a point as well. While it’s illegal to have a police scanner while committing a crime, giving somebody the knowledge of where officers are responding and how far away they are give those with bad intentions a head start on getting away in time, and may give them an advantage if an ambush were to be in the cards.
To contact reporter Jason Campbell email firstname.lastname@example.org