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Police defend muting radios

LR officials say transparency push to offset encryption

Posted: August 4, 2014 at 3:15 a.m.

Little Rock police officials said they felt the need to encrypt most of their radio traffic to make things simpler and avoid a confusing situation that could put officers in peril.

The state's largest police department joined departments in Russellville, Conway and North Little Rock on Thursday night by encrypting all of their internal radio channels and, save for a few channels where they can talk to other city divisions, have left concerned citizens, radio hobbyists and media members out of the loop.

Assistant Police Chief Wayne Bewley, who helped manage the nearly $9 million initiative to overhaul the department's communication system, said Friday that department officials were talking about encryption possibilities as early as May 2013, though they didn't get approval from the city Board of Directors until late January for the $149,487 cost to go through with it.

It's not about secrecy, Bewley said, but a need to protect officers in a day and age where anyone with a smartphone can access main police dispatch traffic.

"From the standpoint of officers and the concern the officers expressed over time, they've always had issues with the normal dispatch [being open to public listening]," Bewley said. "It's a concern for our officers pretty much across the board."

But city board members, as well as other residents, have said they were led to believe that the encryption effort would be selective and that only the most sensitive channels, ones involving SWAT raids or drug surveillance, would be kept from access by the public.

Bewley said he wasn't able to speak to conversations between former Chief of Police Stuart Thomas and city officials, or media members, but that the department did consider only partial encryption.

At first, Bewley said, department officials considered only limited encryption for its channels. But eventually they decided that uniform encryption was best to avoid officers getting lost in the conversation when they transitioned between encrypted and nonencrypted channels.

"The concern was can we switch back and forth ... that became worrisome to us, from a safety standpoint ... if someone was on encrypted and someone wasn't ... how did that affect our communications with each other?" Bewley said.

Radio channels that were once open are now scrambled, and their signal is only decipherable for law enforcement radios equipped with a "key" to decipher the code.

When the department announced last Monday that they planned on blacking out their radio chatter to the public in order to protect officers, department officials were unable to cite specific calls, or arrests, where officers were put in danger by police scanners or smartphones, nor were they able to give a specific instance of a suspect carrying a radio.

On Friday, Bewley was able to provide examples: two of them.

In April 2013, officers arrested a thief at a Little Rock auto dealership and found him to be carrying an iPhone with a police scanner application playing the department's main traffic, Bewley said.

Fortunately for officers, they were using a secondary radio channel, one unavailable on the phone application, and they were able to make the arrest without alerting the thief that they were coming.

Early on Nov. 10, 2013, officers got into a high-speed pursuit with a car connected with a string of thefts and, after trapping the car in a parking garage, detained the three men inside.

According to police reports, the three theft suspects had an iPhone plugged into the car stereo and were listening to the police dispatch through a scanner application.

Department officials also provided incidents in which suspects were believed to have some sort of police scanner or scanner application on a smartphone, enabling them to evade police.

They also noted an incident in which a neighbor alerted a woman that there may have been a shooting at her home because she was able to listen to the police scanner application on her smartphone.

A woman got a call from her neighbor while she was in Hot Springs, and the neighbor was worried because she heard that there were shots fired near her home.

The woman didn't think much of it until she arrived home later that morning and found that her German Shepherd had been shot.

Bewley said the department knew that some in the public would be upset by the department's decision to encrypt its radio chatter.

He said that to offset their exclusion there, the department is revamping how it shares information with the public.

Department officials want to beef up both their website and use of social media, to dispense crime and public safety information and strengthen the interaction and trust between themselves and the general public, he said.

Bewley said Chief Kenton Buckner, who replaced Thomas in late June, supports the move to encrypt all the department radio channels and the effort to keep the public informed about criminal activity.

"Our response to [damaged trust] will be we'll move forward with more transparency, getting our crime information out there ... our new chief, it's hard to argue how out in the public he's been, and open about the operation of our department," Bewley said.

"It's going to recover. For the amount of the community that will see this as a negative, hopefully they'll give it a bit of time and see the transparency and the other things we'll do.

Bewley added: "From our standpoint, it won't change the way we operate. We're still gonna respond to the calls. We'll still have our audio, video cameras running."

Noting that media often rely on scanners to cover breaking news, Bewley said the department's public information office is devising new strategies to keep the media apprised of what's happening in Little Rock.

As of Friday, department officials didn't have any concrete solutions and said that they are still being put together.

While encryption may reduce scrutiny from the public, its implementation has drawn criticism from city directors who feel they were never told that their approval of funding for encryption technology would result in a wholesale muting of police chatter on public frequencies.

Ward 5 City Director Lance Hines said he has received a lot of feedback, both from his own constituents and those outside his ward, who are concerned or critical of the department's new radio policy.

He expects a good deal of discussion over the issue at Tuesday night's city board meeting.

"With as many emails I'm getting, it'll be a board discussion," Hines said.

Metro on 08/04/2014

Reader poll

What are your thoughts on the encryption of police radio channels?

  • It's a reasonable step to prevent criminals from listening in and to ensure officer safety. 30% 164 votes
  • It infringes on the public's right to information. 31% 168 votes
  • Encryption is appropriate for only a few sensitive channels, and the rest should be public. 36% 196 votes
  • Other (please comment). 0% 4 votes

532 total votes.

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