Po­lice ra­dio en­crypted to keep out­siders from lis­ten­ing

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Made­line St. Amour Safety, pri­vacy con­cerns “Shades of gray”

Long­mont po­lice are now dis­patch­ing through an en­crypted ra­dio chan­nel, which means the pub­lic can’t lis­ten to po­lice com­mu­ni­ca­tion via scan­ners and scan­ner cell­phone apps.

The de­ci­sion came af­ter con­cerns for of­fi­cer safety and vic­tim pri­vacy, ac­cord­ing to Deputy Chief Jeff Satur, though it’s not clear how much these is­sues have di­rectly af­fected Long­mont po­lice. The de­ci­sion was made in­ter­nally and did not re­quire ap­proval from City Coun­cil be­cause it’s an op­er­a­tional change, ac­cord­ing to spokesman Rigo Leal.

Satur em­pha­sized that the change is a pi­lot project that may be ad­justed in the fu­ture, but at this time there is no sched­uled end date.

While en­crypt­ing main dispatch chan­nels is an in­creas­ing trend in law en­force­ment, as­so­ci­a­tions rep­re­sent­ing the me­dia op­pose the idea, say­ing it re­duces trans­parency and makes it more dif­fi­cult for re­porters to do their jobs.

There was no one thing that trig­gered Long­mont po­lice to pull their main dispatch line from the pub­lic, Satur said.

Rather, a buildup of con­cerns over vic­tim pri­vacy and of­fi­cer safety spurred the de­ci­sion. Of­ten, vic­tims’ in­for­ma­tion or lo­ca­tion will go out over the scan­ner, Satur said, which can be es­pe­cially sen­si­tive in a do­mes­tic vi­o­lence or sex­ual as­sault case.

But no vic­tim has com­plained to Long­mont po­lice about that spe­cific is­sue, Satur said. Of­fi­cers have no­ticed scan­ners play­ing when con­duct­ing traf­fic stops or re­spond­ing to do­mes­tic sit­u­a­tions at homes, he said, and re­al­ized what it could mean to them.

The pos­si­bil­ity of crim­i­nals mon­i­tor­ing scan­ner traf­fic, es­pe­cially while out on a crime spree, also made Long­mont po­lice con­sider en­cryp­tion, he said. While the depart­ment has not cre­ated a re­port on how many cases have in­volved crim­i­nals lis­ten­ing to scan­ners, Satur said he had heard of it hap­pen­ing in at least five cases.

“With the ad­vent of the cell­phone apps, scan­ners are now avail­able for free and any­body could put them on their phone,” he said.

When asked if he thought en­cryp­tion would af­fect the depart­ment’s trans­parency, Satur said it would not. He cited the depart­ment’s pol­icy of send­ing a daily re­port of calls for ser­vice that in­cludes some press nar­ra­tives and of publishing in­for­ma­tion about high in­ter­est cases on its so­cial me­dia ac­counts as ex­am­ples of its trans­parency.

Satur said the depart­ment has talked about giv­ing me­dia out­lets scan­ners that would pro­vide ac­cess to the dispatch chan­nel, as other de­part­ments across the coun­try, in­clud­ing the Fort Collins Po­lice Depart­ment, have done af­ter switch­ing to en­crypted chan­nels.

Po­lice de­part­ments in Gree­ley and Love­land also have en­crypted their main dispatch lines. Broom­field po­lice are con­sid­er­ing en­cryp­tion, though they sub­mit­ted a re­port to the Broom­field City Coun­cil on the is­sue.

“This is com­mon and it’s not new,” said Adam Wandt, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of pub­lic pol­icy at John Jay Col­lege of Crim­i­nal Jus­tice in New York City. “It’s been com­mon for quite some time.”

New York state, for ex­am­ple, has made it il­le­gal for peo­ple to mon­i­tor po­lice fre­quen­cies while in a mov­ing ve­hi­cle.

Wandt said it’s not un­com­mon for crim­i­nals to mon­i­tor scan­ners. But, he said, the de­ci­sion to en­crypt the main dispatch line has both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive ef­fects. “(Po­lice de­part­ments) ab­so­lutely do de­crease their trans­parency,” he said, “but they do in­crease pri­vacy for vic­tims and their op­er­a­tions’ se­cu­rity.”

Some de­part­ments have gone around this dilemma by us­ing two fre­quen­cies — one for “nor­mal” calls, and one for more sen­si­tive cases.

While that pro­vides more trans­parency, Wandt said it comes with its own dif­fi­cul­ties. It’s of­ten hard for a dis­patcher to know if a sit­u­a­tion is sen­si­tive at first, though that might be dis­cov­ered later on.

Whether a depart­ment should en­crypt its chan­nels or not is a per­sonal de­ci­sion, Wandt said, and an op­por­tu­nity for agen­cies to “ex­am­ine their own poli­cies very care­fully.”

“I think there are bal­ances be­tween mak­ing in­for­ma­tion pub­lic and keep­ing pri­vate in­for­ma­tion out of the pub­lic eye,” he said. “But it’s not a black and white an­swer; there are many shades of gray here. There is not a one­size­fits­all so­lu­tion.”

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