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Maintain radio silence

Welcome to Little Rock, Chief!

Posted: August 4, 2014 at 3:17 a.m.

Robert Redford found Dustin Hoffman rewriting his copy in All The President’s Men, and didn’t much cotton to it. (If memory serves, they were playing two newspaper types of some note.) Call it the vanity of newsmen, and it’s not pretty. At one point, Robert Redford’s character quietly tells his partner: I don’t mind what you did, I mind the way you did it.

Which is the way a lot of folks in Little Rock may feel when it comes to this whole encryption thing out of police headquarters. It might not be the worst thing ever, but, boy, you’d think Little Rock’s finest could’ve handled it better.

The police in the state’s largest force have now gone quiet. Eerily quiet. The newsroom scanners and even the traffic monitors in many a local household no longer chatter. Little Rock’s police department has encrypted most of its communications—and unless the cops are talking to another city employee in another department, those who Serve and Protect us are maintaining radio silence when it comes to the served and protected. We the mere people are now to be kept in the dark about what’s going on as it goes on.

The cops, or at least their spokesmen, say it’s all being done in the interest of public safety. Because nowadays there are apps that the bad guys can employ on their smart phones to find out when busts might be made. And that development, the spokesmen say, could get one of the good guys hurt.

Besides, those spokesmen say, other police departments in the state encrypt their communications, too. Which may be the worst argument for Little Rock’s doing the same. It seems a little too Johnny’s-mother-says-it’s-okay for a discussion between adults.

The bigger problem might be the way this was all done. That is, quietly. Little Rock’s city manager told the papers that encryption was “always on the table” when the new radio equipment was put in. But he might have been more accurate if he’d said the whole encryption business was done under the table.

Not only are the media bent out of shape. Not only are those concerned citizens who try to keep up with local crime, and share their reports on social media, yelling about this black-out. When the new encryption rules were finally announced, some city directors were taken by surprise, too. One of them, Stacy Hurst, said she worked for the sales tax increase in 2011 in part to upgrade the police department’s radio equipment. But encryption? “I worked hard to get it passed, and I don’t recall [encryption] being discussed. I do not recall it being a talking point. Was it in the fine print somewhere? I can’t say for sure.”

Adds another city director, Lance Hines: “I think everyone’s scratching their heads going, ‘How did we get from here to there?’ ”

Little Rock’s city directors might do well to take up this not so little matter at their next meeting. For they seem to have questions. And other questions need raising. Such as:

—Shouldn’t the public be able to hear what those responsible for our safety are saying to each other? And shouldn’t the public be able to keep up with crimes in their neighborhoods? Even and maybe especially while they’re being committed?

—Wasn’t public money spent to upgrade these police radios? Is spending public money to keep the public in the dark really the best way to keep officers safe?

—What happens next time some officer of the law abuses a private citizen and is so indiscreet as to refer to it on his police radio? That happens, you know. Now, when the courts or just some inky wretches of the press begin looking into the case, will they find all the evidence has been encrypted?

—And if encryption was “always on the table,” then how come nobody saw it sitting there? Why is the public just now hearing about it? Or was that information encrypted, too?

Little Rock’s new police chief, Kenton Buckner, has been on the job, oh, about a month now. Welcome to Little Rock, Chief. Around these parts, people take their public information, and access to it, seriously. Even if it’s just two cops talking about a stalled car on the interstate.

More than that, though, folks around here don’t like things being put over on them ever so quietly. They prefer their public officials to stay public. That is, open and above-board and with due notice given and public hearing held before any important change is made in public policy. Citizens don’t like things hidden in fine print. Or even encrypted.

Can the scrambler—or whatever gizmo is used in encryption—be turned off, and the radio chatter resumed with a push of the button? That’s still another question Little Rock’s city directors should ask—in public—at their next meeting. Some of us can’t wait.

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