Local law enforcement going back to open radios

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 19, 2001

[07/19/01] After four years of silence, scanners across Warren County will be on again soon broadcasting radio communications from local police and fire departments.

Bill Ford, information system specialist with the City of Vicksburg, said he hopes to have the primary radio channels used by the Vicksburg Police and Fire departments and the Warren County Sheriff’s Department broadcasting on public airwaves before the end of the month. The signal being broadcast at a frequency of 155.790 mHz., could be operational by Friday, he said.

“We want our community to be involved in government and what is happening,” said Mayor Laurence Leyens. “People should have a right to hear what is going on.”

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Since 1997, law enforcement in the city and county have been using a digital 800 mHz frequency that can only be heard using special, expensive equipment. Now anyone with a $100 police radio scanner will be able to listen to the primary signals.

Ford said there was no expense involved in the switch since the city already had all the equipment needed for the change.

Leyens said he hopes that letting the public listen in on the activities of the police department will help stem the tide of mistrust in the community. Vicksburg Police Chief Mitchell Dent said he has mixed feelings about the public listening in.

“There may be some benefits to it going out over the primary signal, but I also think there could be some bad things about it,” Dent said.

He said that there are times when police need to be covert and that he is concerned about someone hearing something on a scanner and interfering with officers at the scene. At the same time, Dent said that sometimes the public may hear something on a scanner and be able to offer help to the police.

Vicksburg Fire Chief Kevin Westbrook said that while his department did not have a need to be covert, he is concerned about the public hearing private information about patients during emergencies.

“Now being back over the public airways, we may have to go back to the 10 codes,” Westbrook said. “Which we don’t want to do.”

Codes such as “10-4,” meaning affirmative, or “10-50,” reporting a wreck, are commonly used by law enforcement. Westbrook said that since going to the private 800 mHz frequency his fire and rescue personnel have gone from using codes to “plain talk” like talking on a phone.

He said that while using “plain talk” has made it easier for his department to communicate with different law enforcement agencies, he would consider going back to using codes to maintain the privacy of victims.

Warren County Sheriff Martin Pace said he is not worried about the investigations being compromised by the public listening on the scanners because radio channels used by investigators and narcotic officers will remain private.

“I think it’s great,” Pace said. “We benefit from the public being able to hear.”

He said allowing the public to listen to the primary signals would help hold law enforcement officers accountable to the public.

Ford said he has already been testing the system this week using 5 watts to broadcast the signal in a small area of town, but when the system is up and running and pushing about 30 watts of power it will be heard in most parts of the county.

Some areas, such as Redwood, will be unable to pick up the signal without an outdoor antenna because of the terrain, Ford said. Residents in the municipal limits should have no difficulty hearing the signal with only an indoor antenna, he said.

“We’ll keep doing it as long as the public does not jeopardize the officers,” Leyens said.