Toronto Police switch to controversial new communication technology

The Toronto Police Service is switching to a new encrypted scanner technology, which journalists say will hamper their ability to do their jobs. (Photo Wikimedia Commons)

Veronica Appia
Crime/Security Reporter

Toronto Police Services said last Tuesday they have made the switch to encrypted digital technology from analog radios. But people in the media are saying that it will hamper their ability to do their jobs.

The encryption technology will provide Toronto officers with more privacy on the communications front, said Henri Berube, a coordinator of Humber College’s Police Foundations Program and a former Peel Region police officer.

“There is a lot of stuff that is discussed on a police radio that you don’t necessarily want the public to hear,” said Berube. “What the police do to manage around that is often talk on cell phones (and) not say things over the radio that they might otherwise say. It can hamper communications a little bit.”

Sometimes officers will have to give information about people’s criminal records, license plate numbers or addresses over the radio, Berube said.

“The fact that it’s being broadcast publicly is a potential violation of people’s privacy rights,” Berube said.

At the same time, however, the move makes news reporters’ jobs an impending nightmare.

“It seems like a disaster for us,” said Kevin Donovan, an investigative reporter and editor at the Toronto Star. “I think that we, at the Star, use the scanners responsibly and I don’t think we ever use them to interfere with the work of the police or other emergency services.”

Donovan says reporters will have to rely more on fire and ambulance scanners, because sometimes those emergency responders will be called to the same scene as the police.

“There is going to be a lot less immediate knowledge of what police are doing, that’s for sure,” said Donovan. “If there was a propane explosion…as long as the fire is not encrypted we can still hear that fire is going there, but we wouldn’t necessarily hear information about where police are setting up a perimeter or if they are looking for something related to suspects.”

Berube said when he was a police officer there were concerns that people were listening to the police scanner and reacting to it.

Tow truck drivers would race to the scenes of crimes and cause driving issues, sometimes fatal accidents, said Berube.

“The police are always cognizant that what they do is in the news and has to be reported.,” said Berube. “Where the problem used to occur was when you’d get what we call, for lack of better terms, ambulance chasers.”

Encrypted radios are contrary to community policing, but necessary to ensure public safety, said John Irwin, a Justice Studies professor at University of Guelph-Humber and retired Toronto police officer.

“It’s a justice thing,” he said. “It’s security mindedness versus complete openness.”

“The short term will be, moving forward from now, that the cops get to decide what is newsworthy and what is not,” said Tony Smyth, a videographer from CBC News.

Before encryption, the media would arrive at the scene early enough to interview witnesses, but moving forward police officers may hold off a bit on releasing information, said Smyth.

By the time the information reaches the media, the scene will probably be secure and the witnesses will be on their way to the station to give their formal statements, he said.

“Typically what comes with that is when (witnesses) are giving their statement and they’re done…the police will almost always tell them ‘please don’t talk to the media.’ I don’t know why they do that, but it’s a routine thing,” said Smyth.

Providing media organizations with police scanners, under certain conditions, may be a way to rectify the problem, said Berube, who says that solution worked in Regina, Sask.

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