By editorial board • 

Local police shouldn’t try to operate in silence

McMinnville police are joining the ranks of law enforcement agencies throughout the country who use encrypted radio signals to keep their communications quiet from the public.

MPD presented arguments to cut the public from their radio conversations, but they aren’t compelling enough.

Officers are legally empowered to carry firearms and make arrests. They should — make that must — be willing to operate under intense public scrutiny in exchange.

In a free and open society, avoiding such scrutiny should require proof it will best serve the public interest. They are public servants, after all, not the secret police.

Authorities here have yet to meet the burden of proof for encoding radio transmissions so officers and dispatchers can communicate without the press or public eavesdropping.

We understand officers’ concerns. They face suspects listening to scanners to stay a step or two ahead of them. They argue that busybodies in the community cause problems by appearing at crime scenes or spreding incorrect information online.

However, Chief Matt Scales and Capt. Tim Symons point mostly to hypothetical scenarios that might turn sour because of overheard scanner chatter.

Say people listening to police scanners in their cars hear about a bank alarm going off. “Well, that sounds like fun,” they say to themselves. “Never seen no bank heist before. Let’s toodle over and have a peek.”

In fact, Scales and Symons offer few if any real-life anecdotes to support their argument.

Mostly, police officers just say they don’t feel safe. We understand that, but the public feels the same way.

The public has every reason to want to keep their eyes — and ears — on their local police. Without the transparency of open radio communications, it will be up to Mac Police to determine what information is relayed to the public, and in what timeframe.

We would feel more comfortable with the police department’s plans if the department had a better track record on transparency to start with. Local police officials have a history of doling out information in small doses, particularly in recent years. They often provide only what is legally required and, even then, only after considerable persistence and insistence.

There are exceptions. Police officials have been quite forthcoming at times.

However, such openness should be the rule, not the exception. That was once the case, but no longer.

If local police embraced transparency on a routine basis, we could look more favorably on a scanner shutdown. But against this background, it will simply serve to further erode public trust.

Interestingly, neither state nor county law enforcement agencies have unveiled plans to encode radio communications. And troopers and deputies run equal risks.

Transparency is seldom easy. Governments at all levels, it seems, seek to operate as secretly as possible. And they invariably invoke safety as justification.

Outside a police state, safety must always be balanced with openness. The question the Roman poet Juvenal asked some 1,800 years ago must still be asked today.

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes,” or “Who will watch the watchmen?”


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