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SMPD Goes Digital -- Boon for Public Safety or Bust for Right to Know?

By Teresa Rochester

One week before the Democratic National Convention, with a simple flip of a switch, the Santa Monica Police Department went digital.

With its new $2 million digital radio system, the SMPD joined the growing ranks of police and fire agencies across the country that are trading in scratchy antiquated analog radios for cutting-edge technology.

"Digital radios and a digital backbone allow you greater clarity of reception and a greater range of reception than an analog-based system," said Police Chief James T. Butts Jr.

But while Santa Monica police officials say the new technology -- which cannot be picked up by scanners or hacked into -- is a boon for public and officer safety, the new system has left radio enthusiasts and news reporters with an impenetrable silence.

"You have to ask the question, 'How will the media know when news is breaking?'" said Mike Jordan, a Pepperdine University media professor. "The news media represents all of the people. In the place of the people, the media are the eyes and ears of the community."

While media experts air concerns about the First Amendment and the right to information, SMPD officials vigorously defend the need for digital technology. They point out that public information officers are available to reporters and the police department's Web site posts calls for service and arrests made.

"You have to weigh the pros and cons and look at the fundamental purpose of what police radios are for,' said Butts. "You'd expect your police department to obtain the best equipment to facilitate public safety and officer safety."

The need for the new system was made evident from 1,100 miles away when Santa Monica police watched the flickering television images of Seattle officers clashing with protesters during last December's World Trade Organization conference.

They heard the stories too: Protesters hacking into the police radio system and placing fake calls, which police responded to only to leave other areas unprotected.

"Their system was analog," Butts said.

Other cities also have had their radio systems compromised.

· In June a group of teenagers in Amherst, Ohio stole a pair of two-way police radios and taunted officers in Amherst and in a neighboring community. The taunts lasted for nearly five hours on a night that saw police searching for a robbery suspect in one community, while officers in the other patrolled an annual festival.

· In Northern and Southern California, the California Highway Patrol has had problems with radio pirates hacking into its radios. In June a Bell businessman was sentenced to five years in prison for transmitting profane comments on frequencies used by the CHP, Orange County sheriffs and Irvine and Garden Grove police officers.

· Earlier this year in the San Francisco Bay Area another hacker invaded radio channels used by the CHP and other area police agencies. The hacker often posed as an officer and made false calls or yelled profanities at police.

But it was the incidents in Seattle and the SMPD's own intelligence reports that indicated Santa Monica would be a hotbed of protests on the eve of the week-long Democratic Convention in August.

It was those warning signals that sent the SMPD scrambling to put its new, tamper-proof system in place.

The plan to go digital began five years ago, and in 1998, the SMPD slowly began acquiring equipment to make the transition using money from the department's asset seizure funds, its annual radio replacement program and the Local Law Enforcement Block Grant program. The digital system was expected to be in place by 2002.

Then, with the high-profile convention looming, Santa Monica nearly doubled overnight the $1 million it had spent over the past two years building the digital infrastructure needed to run the new radios. In June it made an emergency purchase of 200 portable and 25 vehicle digital radios manufactured by Motorola for a total of $939,819.

With the latest purchase, the department now has 314 digital portable radios and 120 car radios for its 209 sworn officers and many of its 218 civilian employees, who cover everything from animal control to harbor patrol.

Police say the new digital radios are superior to the old analog models in many ways. Unlike the old radios, each new model is assigned to a specific user. If the radio is lost or stolen, it can quickly be disabled with one keystroke, rendering it useless, said the department's radio technician Eric Uller, who put in countless hours programming the radios before the DNC.

The radios also have a special help button that allows wounded officers or officers who cannot speak out loud to simply press a button to summon assistance. Officers also are outfitted with ear pieces to listen in on radio broadcasts.

Under the old analog system, the department had problems with the scope of the area they could cover and the clarity of the signal. Messages broadcast over the frequencies would sometimes be garbled, particularly on the outskirts of the city. With digital, police say that is no longer a problem.

The new radios also are cheaper to maintain. Monthly upkeep of a digital radio is $3, compared to $12-a-month for analog radios, Uller said.

If officers need to communicate with another department that still uses an analog system, SMPD officers can match the analog signal with the press of a button.

"The technology handles both digital and analog," said department spokesman, Lt. Gary Gallinot. "You can switch over and talk with Beverly Hills or talk with Culver City."

The radio signals also are encrypted, blocking out any scanner trying to access the department's frequencies. It will be a year or more before digital scanners hit the market, but even then they won't pick up SMPD radios.

"Scanners have to be able to unscramble encryption," Uller said. "There's no scanner in the world that will be able to unscramble that code."

It is that lack of access that raises concerns.

In any given newsroom the static sound of scanners monitoring police and fire frequencies is only rivaled by that of fingers clicking on keys. Calls broadcast on scanners often are the first indication of breaking news.

That was the case on the Fourth of July, when residents on the East Coast learned about the pre-dawn shootout on the Santa Monica Pier, which injured three police officers and three civilians, long before Santa Monica residents woke up.

And last month, residents of the City's east side, who turned on the morning news, learned that much of Santa Monica was in darkness following two powerful electrical explosions that knocked out power.

In both cases, the local media caught wind of the events on newsroom scanners.

"A police scanner is right up there with ink and paper as being one of the basic tools for media," said Jordan, who was elected to the School Board last month. "I think this is a serious issue, if this is a trend, for journalist nationwide… This is a time-honored tradition in journalism that poses some very serious coverage issues in the media."

For now, reporters can tune in to the Fire Department's frequencies to snatch breaking news. But while Santa Monica's fire department still is using analog, it is in the process of switching to digital radios as well.

News reporters are not the only segment of the population listening to scanners. For many people it is a hobby, a means of monitoring the people who uphold the law, or simply a way to satisfy curiosity.

Analog scanners are relatively cheap and easy to find. They run between $80 and $400 and can be purchased at many electronics shops.

Log onto the World Wide Web and there are several Web sites that allow users to listen in on public safety agencies across the country. One such Web site is New York-based APBnews.com (www.apbnews.com), which reports on crime across the country and features the largest single site to access scanners.

According to an APBnews spokesman, scanners are the site's most popular feature, with individual hits skyrocketing when breaking news like the Seattle riots occur.

"There are literally millions of people out there who follow police scanners," APBnews spokesman Joe Krakoviak said. "We understand why police departments move to digital technology. It has a better signal among other things. The consequences of that is it greatly reduces availability of signals to residents who pay for their services.

"Listening to police scanners is not just an entertainment thing. It's a listening to our civil servant thing," Krakoviak said. "This is all very new territory that's being explored."

Law enforcement officials, however, counter that even under the analog system, not all broadcasts are public. When police conduct sensitive investigations using an analog system, they routinely switch to a private frequency.

Both Butts and Gallinot pointed out that while law-abiding people may be interested in listening to police scanners, so are criminals.

"It's not something we track, but a lot of criminals we arrest have scanners on them," Gallinot said. "It enhances their ability to commit crimes and escape undetected and that compromises officer safety and public safety."

While there are no numbers available, Lt. Ed Kreins of the Beverly Hills Police Department said that his department has seen less than one percent of the criminals they capture using scanners. The ones that do are usually sophisticated criminals.

Kreins also said the BHPD has no plans to go digital anytime soon. The department recently upgraded its analog system, and Kreins said it would be years before the department considered moving to digital radios. He also questioned whether some departments might not find the cost too prohibitive.

"It doesn't sound like a lot of agencies would be going to it in the future," Kriens said. "It may be too expensive if it's going to cost $2 million."

But many departments are shelling out the money for digital systems as wireless phones gobble up frequencies and office buildings and large structures block radio waves.

Orange County officials have shelled out $80 million for a digital emergency radio system, and departments in El Monte, San Diego, Kansas City, MO and Portland, OR all have digital systems. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is also moving in that direction.

Some of the departments that have switched to digital, however, have experienced glitches with their systems. In Orange County officials halted the roll out of their digital system in June after officers complained it didn't pick up calls from dispatchers and delayed and garbled messages. Work got under way again in July.

Police and firefighters throughout the country have echoed similar complaints.

But Santa Monica officers have not experienced any problems, and other than getting used to a slight delay, Uller said, there have been no complaints.

With six antennas placed within city limits and neighboring jurisdictions, Santa Monica, for better or worse, has tuned in to the wave of the future.

"Digital is where everything is going," Gallinot said. "This is where the evolution is heading"

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