Listening to a police scanner or using a cellphone app to see what the police in Cary are up to will soon be a thing of the past.
Town police will soon begin encrypting their radio broadcasts so that only specially coded radios on the system can receive them clearly, part of a national trend among law enforcement agencies.
Chief Pat Bazemore says the change will protect privacy and make officers safer. Criminals and would-be criminals can download apps that deliver police radio traffic directly to their phones, and police say the bad guys can use them to know where officers are and what they’re doing.
“The officers’ safety ... is the priority for us,” Bazemore said.
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But encrypting radio signals will prevent other people, including hobbyists and the news media, from monitoring police activity.
David Bench, who helped found Crime Stoppers in Cary, has three police scanners in his house, and they’re pretty much on all the time. Bench says he understands what police are trying to accomplish by encrypting their radio traffic, but says he thinks “there is a lot more help than there is hindrance” in having residents able to keep tabs on events.
Civilians like himself who listen to scanner traffic can share helpful information with police that they wouldn’t know to provide if they had not been listening to a scanner, he said.
“They have no idea what this is going to come to,” Bench said.
Bazemore insists the change to encryption was to help the department, not to disenfranchise or exclude people.
“Our goal was never to keep the public out,” she said. “Technology is a good tool, but it can create obstacles for us, or unintended consequences,” and encryption is a way to ameliorate those.
Cary is the first police department in the Triangle to encrypt its radios, but others are doing it elsewhere. Wilmington police and the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office have encrypted their signals; Washington, D.C., police switched to encrypted radio traffic last September, raising the ire of news organizations that became deaf to police goings-on.
In Durham, Rik Rasmussen, the city’s radio system manager, said the police department has discussed encryption and is talking to other agencies about its impact on inter-agency communications. Durham police spokeswoman Kammie Michael said the department has no firm encryption plans yet.
“It is something the police department has discussed and would like to do for officer safety reasons as well as to prevent criminals from monitoring police radio traffic and thus avoiding detection.” Michael said.
The State Bureau of Investigation often uses encrypted radio communications, and some federal agencies, including the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Secret Service, went to encrypted radio traffic years ago.
Keeping news choppers away
Police also hope that encrypting their radio traffic will eliminate or at least delay the arrival of television news helicopters over the scene of a crime or other incident.
The helicopters are capable of sending live video for stations to broadcast, and Bazemore said police worry about that in some situations, such as when someone has barricaded himself in a building or when police may be dealing with suspected explosives.
Now police must contact TV news offices and ask them to not broadcast the video or call Federal Aviation Administration officials at Raleigh-Durham International Airport and have an emergency no-fly zone declared around the scene, forcing FAA-licensed aircraft and pilots to leave that zone.
WRAL News Director Rick Gall said his station tries not to broadcast images that will interfere with police work.
“We carefully consider what to show and report based on a variety of factors, including the safety of those who we’re covering,” Gall said. “For example, from the air and ground, we avoid showing tactical positions around a stand-off.”
As for the loss of police radio access in Cary, Gall said: “We learn about breaking news in many different ways and will always respond quickly to unfolding stories.”
Rob Elmore, the news director at ABC-11, the other Triangle TV station with a news helicopter, declined to comment on the change.
Another benefit, Bazemore said, is that there will be privacy for people’s medical and driver’s license information that sometimes is part of police calls and is among information that police agree to keep confidential as a condition of having access to it.
That includes vehicle registration information and details from a number of law-enforcement information databases operated by state and federal agencies.
Police are not legally required to provide access to their radio broadcasts under public records laws. That question came up in 2002, when Johnston County began using a radio system which used a technology that scanners of that day could not accommodate.
The county asked the state Attorney General’s Office if it had to provide the media and anyone else with access to live radio communications and got a definite answer: No.
“North Carolina law does not require a governmental entity to provide the public a means to monitor its 800 megahertz radio communications,” John J. Aldridge III of the Department of Justice Law Enforcement Liaison Section said in a written opinion.
Bench, the Cary Crime Stoppers co-founder, said police don’t need to encrypt their radio traffic to keep officers safe and protect privacy.
He said there are ways to encrypt some police communications while others remain public, and notes that police cars already have portable computers on which information can be shared and that operate on cell phone frequencies that are almost impossible to monitor.