Media access to law enforcement channel in limbo

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Hopkinsville media outlets are at risk of losing access to local law enforcement channels on police scanners; however, Hopkinsville Police Department is working on a solution that keeps the media informed and keeps the agency in compliance with state and federal regulations.

Wednesday morning in a meeting at the Hopkinsville Police Department, Chief Clayton Sumner informed the Kentucky New Era and local radio stations that media outlets would be removed from the frequency dispatch and law enforcement uses to communicate – due to concerns of private, sensitive information being transmitted over the scanner.

According to a Sept. 16 letter from Kentucky State Police to chief Sumner, HPD's dispatch center is in violation of FBI Criminal Justice Information Services Security Policy by allowing media access to the encrypted law enforcement channel on the police radios.

"The local media cannot have access to the law enforcement channels because of the way the dispatch center disseminates CJIS sensitive and protected information received from (the National Crime Information Center)," the letter states.

In order to be compliant, Christian County dispatch is required by the FBI CJIS security policy to have a separate way to communicate sensitive information – such as driver's license numbers, vehicle registration, domestic violence orders, etc. – to local law enforcement. Many departments use a second encrypted frequency for such communications.

The dispatch center for Hopkinsville-Christian County currently does not use a separate channel, and employs one channel for all communications.

Sumner said he wasn't aware of the compliance issue until notified after a recent audit from KSP, and the chief asked for a letter from KSP explaining the problem.

"The media does not have an assigned ORI by the FBI and therefore is not authorized at this time to receive the information," the letter states.

Sumner said HPD received the letter on Monday, Sept. 23 and had 10 days to respond to KSP with how they planned to correct the problem.

Their original plan Wednesday was to revoke media access altogether; however, the chief backed off that idea Thursday after clarifying that KSP would allow a grace period to find a solution.

"I'm more than happy for us to figure something out, but I just can't disobey the law," said Sumner, who noted that media access was granted by a prior police administration.

What the law says

According to KRS 432.570, it is illegal for anyone except a member of a police department or police force or an official with written authorization from the head of a department to possess police radios capable of sending and receiving police messages. However, a list of exemptions in that statute allows newspaper journalists and photographers as well as commercial or educational radio and television shows to have the radios as long as it is programmed to only receive messages.

Christian County Emergency Manager Randy Graham, who has the ability to reprogram the radios, said he can not confiscate the equipment from media, but he will restart the system when he is told to do it, essentially disconnecting the media's access to the system.

Sumner had planned to cut the cord Thursday, but tasked his captains with finding a solution that would not cause the airwaves to go silent. Christian County Sheriff Tyler DeArmond was also at Wednesday's meeting and said he would follow suit with what HPD determined.

Graham said fire and EMS will still be broadcast on the radios because they usually don't disseminate sensitive information.

State law is unclear about what level of access media has to the information that comes across those radios; however, FBI CJIS security policy states that NCIC terminal-produced CJIS-sensitive information is not subject to open records laws.

What happens next

Immediately following Wednesday's meeting, New Era staff made calls to state Secretary of Justice and Public Safety Cabinet John Tilley, who is from Hopkinsville, and to Kentucky State Police CJIS systems officer Lt. Col. Larry Newton, whose names were listed on the notification letter from KSP.

An email from the cabinet's communications director Mike Wynn referred all questions to KSP.

Sgt. Josh Lawson, KSP commander of public affairs, said state police is tasked with auditing and telling departments when they are noncompliant with the federal regulations.

As far as how law enforcement gets public safety information to the media, Lawson said that's left up to each agency to decide. He did say some police agencies have a separate channel for communicating privacy-protected information.

"I am aware of, personally, other agencies that can transmit on other channels ... and if they need to switch over to another channel to transmit a driver's license, they can," Lawson said. "There are options for that. It would come back to the Hopkinsville Police Department and their dispatch center (on how to create that channel). But, that is an option and I would encourage that, but I can't speak for them."

Sumner said it's not that simple, noting that creating a new channel would mean new equipment and more staff.

"It's the staffing of the frequency that would be the cost issue," the chief said. "We'd have to have someone monitoring that frequency, and figuring out how you staff that frequency is what becomes costly."

Lawson said he was unaware of other police departments that are noncompliant with this rule. He went on to explain that when HPD went to an encrypted radio system years ago additional security standards were put into place.

"When the previous administration knowingly provided those encrypted frequencies to somebody that wasn't authorized to have them, that's what caused an issue of noncompliance," Lawson said.

According to the letter, HPD can be placed at a Level B Sanction if the compliance issue is not rectified.

"Level B Sanction means they would be put on probation for a period of time determined by KSP while they would continue to have access to the CJIS network," Lawson explained to the New Era. "We would let them still have access to it because they need that to do their jobs. We're not going to cut them off because that would create an officer safety issue."

Hopkinsville Police Department is not sanctioned at this time.

Lawson explained that if the problem is not fixed, the department would be sanctioned at Level B, and if bumped to Level A, the department's usage of the CJIS network would be suspended.

A possible solution

At the end of Wednesday's meeting, media personnel wondered how breaking news and crimes that affect public safety might be communicated to the public if access to scanners went silent.

"Local news outlets rely on these radio channels to inform the public of emergencies in our community," said Brandon Cox, publisher of the New Era. "This isn’t a 'media' thing. This is about the public’s right to the access of information. It’s about public safety, and yes, it is at times about transparency."

Thursday, Hopkinsville Police Captain Erik Pacheco emailed local media outlets explaining the solution could be an app called Active911.

Active911 is a digital messaging system that sends information instantly to the recipients, such as location, type of call, time, date. The app would interface with dispatch communications and alert the specified recipients in real time.

Pacheco said he is meeting with personnel Friday regarding Active911 to determine what steps are needed to achieve this option as a solution.

For now, Pacheco said KSP is allowing a grace period for the radio frequency to remain as is with access for local media unimpeded.

Zirconia Alleyne is the editor of the Kentucky New Era. Reach Zirconia at 270-887-3243 or zalleyne@kentuckynewera.com.

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