Police removing media access to radio scanners in Sask.

The police services in Regina and Saskatoon are following others in the country by cutting the media off from police radio scanner channels.

CBC is one of a handful of newsrooms in Saskatoon arguing to make scanner accessible again

Scanners like these can be used to listen to broadcasts between emergency dispatchers and police responding to incidents. Now, police services in Saskatchewan are deprogramming them, saying it will protect personal information. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

The police services in Regina and Saskatoon are following others in the country by cutting the media off from police radio scanner channels. 

In the past, the media had access to what was called Police One, a police scanner that allowed journalists to hear what is happening on the secure police channel in a timely manner, to relay information to the public. 

On Jan. 1, 2018,  all municipal police services in the province became subject to The Local Authority Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. 

This change follows a trend across Canada, with Saskatchewan and P.E.I. being the last provinces to include police forces. 

As a result, the police have indicated that they will take away the media's access to Police One. 

In a letter to CBC Saskatchewan, Regina Police Chief Evan Bray said providing access to police radio systems means engaging in an "unauthorized disclosure of personal information."

Bray spoke about the decision on CBC Radio's The Morning Edition, saying he found the scanners helpful, but that they are not compliant with the legislation. 

He used a hypothetical call to his own home as an example.

"We're being dispatched to Evan Bray's house for a unwanted guest. Evan's ex-wife is at the door. She's, you know, causing problems, whatever," Bray told The Morning Edition. "They give names, sometimes they will talk about whether they're intoxicated or not, whether people have mental health issues, if they're wanted, what they're wanted for.

"That's a lot of information. We wouldn't just give those sheets out."

Regina scanner equipment to be deprogrammed by Aug. 6

The Regina Police Service (RPS) sent out letters to four media organizations saying it's terminating the current Radio System Access Agreement and asking all stations to bring their radio scanner equipment to the police station to be deprogrammed by Aug. 6.

"We remain committed to providing timely information to our community, through traditional media and web-based platforms," an RPS spokesperson said in a statement. "We are always accountable to the public we serve, and there are several layers of oversight to support this.  

"Protecting the private information of individuals and maintaining the integrity of investigations is not possible if all information held by police is made public; the legislation recognizes this and provides a framework for responsible disclosure."

Media organizations in Saskatoon have already had to do that.

"We have had meetings and discussions with all members of the Saskatoon media on this topic and are committed to working toward an alternate solution," a spokesperson for Saskatoon Police Service said in a statement. "At this time the SPS is working on internet based access to information for media, which would not be in violation of legislation.

"We expect to have this 'next best' solution available sometime in the fall."

Media argue to restore Saskatoon police scanner

Lawyer Sean Sinclair is representing newsrooms, including CBC, in the argument to make the scanner in Saskatoon accessible again. 

"The concern of the media organizations that I represent on this is simply that they aren't going to be able to provide the level of service that their viewers and readers expect," Sinclair said. 

"There are a number of circumstances that can arise where there's dangerous situations that are developing and Police One and getting that information out to the public is so important."

The Saskatoon Fire Department's Hazmat Unit takes an unknown white powder out of the Canada Post distribution centre on Avenue H in 2016. Lawyer Sean Sinclair cites this incident as a time when the media was needed to relay information to the public in a timely manner. (Don Somers/CBC)

Sinclair cited a few incidents where the media was able to alert the public immediately after hearing something on the scanner. One was in 2016 when emergency services were called to five locations in the city in a two-hour span as suspicious packages with a white powder were delivered. Sinclair said the scanner is also useful when there are high-speed pursuits and police want drivers to avoid the area. 

Information and Privacy Commissioner Ron Kruzeniski acknowledged the importance of the relationship between the media and police, but said in meetings with both, it was made clear to him that personal information had been transmitted over the scanner. 

Kruzeniski said that could include a name, address or nature of the call if it's regarding something sensitive like domestic violence. 

'The problem is the disclosure,' says privacy commissioner

Sinclair said that identifying information can be removed before information goes to air, but Kruzeniski said whether the media decides to report on the information or not isn't relevant to what is deemed a privacy breach. 

"The problem is the disclosure, not what the third party says they will or won't do with it," he said.

"If a ministry dumped a whole bunch of files on Hamilton Street, that is a breach even though the media isn't there and nobody reports on it; there's still been a disclosure of information that wasn't really authorized."

Information and Privacy Commissioner Ron Kruzeniski said disclosing personal information without consent would breach the privacy act which police in the province now fall under. (CBC)

What will replace scanners?

If newsrooms aren't able to hear police correspondence, it will be up to police services to relay information to the media in another way, "which means greater communications expenses," Sinclair said. 

"Resources will have to be theoretically redirected towards communications where they really should be more properly spent on police on the street," Sinclair said.

"What's the first thing that you're going to cut? It's probably not going to be the members who are policing the street, it's going to be the people providing information out to the public. And so really trying to get that timely information is really affected."

In Toronto, police now tweet out information on calls. But the population of Saskatchewan cities would likely not sustain 24-hour updates, Kruzeniski said. Another solution could be a password-protected police website for the media to access, he said.

Sinclair said he doesn't think police will get information out to the public as quickly as the media. He is also concerned there will be an implicit bias to the information provided.

"When the police are in charge of communications regarding police issues that certainly raises the question of, are you getting an unfiltered version of what's happening out there?"

Sinclair said the next step is further discussions and negotiations with the media, the police, the province and the Privacy Commissioner.

Kruzeniski said he hopes a compromise can be reached. 

"The police need the media and the media need the police and it is all part of how our system works to get information out to the public," Kruzeniski said. "So I am hopeful, bit by bit, that arrangements do develop that come close to meeting both party's needs."