LR board gives police static over scrambled radio traffic

Posted: August 6, 2014 at 4:45 a.m.

Little Rock city officials, including the mayor, told Police Department commanders that the department's recent decision to cut the public and news media out of most police radio traffic needs to be modified in the interest of transparency.

During a Board of Directors meeting Tuesday night, several directors and Mayor Mark Stodola asked City Manager Bruce Moore and new Police Chief Kenton Buckner to look for alternatives to encrypting most police radio channels.

"We have many, many issues that the public has suspicion about what's going on ... in the interest of transparency, being able to make this information available is going to be ultimately critical," Stodola said. "I think the total encryption issue, or at least without any ability [for the public to listen to police radio] will ultimately have a backfire consequence."

Last Friday, the state's largest police department joined departments from North Little Rock, Conway and other cities when it encrypted its radio channels that had been monitored by listeners with a range of interests including hobbyists, neighborhood watch members and reporters, according to city officials.

Radio channels that were once available in real time to the public are now scrambled and only available to law enforcement radios equipped with a key to decipher the code.

The decision to encrypt the channels -- made possible at the tail end of a nearly $9 million overhaul of the agency's communication system and one paid for with a $149,487 appropriation approved by the board in late January -- was done in the interest of public safety, more specifically officer safety, Buckner said.

So far, there have been no officers harmed as a result of open access to police radio channels, Buckner said.

The chief, whose tenure began last month, told the board that there are many anecdotal instances of suspects eluding police because they were monitoring police channels on a scanner or on a scanner application on a smart phone, and told board members of recent examples where suspects were caught using tools to listen to where the police were and where they were going.

"Transparency is very important to me but everything pales in comparison to officer safety," Buckner said. "For the folks on the opposing side of the aisle saying this is hurting transparency, they have the ability to shelter in place when something comes out on the radio. Our officers don't... they don't get that luxury."

Last week, Directors Lance Hines and Stacy Hurst said they were under the impression that the money they approved earlier this year was to go to limited encryption.

Tuesday night, Hines joined other board members in agreeing that officer safety is paramount but said that the new chief's stated desire for greater public engagement should honor a compromise between safety and the public's right to know.

"It's not a simple situation to remedy, to balance the need to know for the press, for our neighborhood watch groups," Hines said. "On the one hand we've committed to being more transparent, on the other we've kind of closed the door on [public radio]... My focus is that we can work out a resolution sooner rather than later."

Moore said one way to strike that balance, one that would involve the city supplying the media with access to the encryption "key," or even providing city radios, met an end late last week.

According to Arkansas Code 5-54-130, no one can carry or use radio equipment "capable of receiving and decoding police department ... communications" unless they are a law enforcement, fire department or Department of Health employee.

The statute, which is a subsection of obstructing governmental operations, could carry a fine of up to $500.

In addition to improving rapid response between department officials and media, Moore said that he, Buckner, and other police officials are examining best practices in other areas in order to find an agreeable middle ground between officers worried about a suspect they're chasing knowing where they're coming from and a public's right to know what police are doing.

One suggestion was that the department find a way to share its computer automated dispatch system, a digital log with calls and locations, with the public through the city's website.

That log would operate on a delay, possibly of 30 minutes, though Buckner said he thought even that was not enough of a lag because it might give suspects fleeing a crime enough time to hamper responses from officers.

The issue, Moore said, is about striking a balance, and both he and Buckner will present proposals to board officials no later than 90 days from now.

Until then, Buckner said, the radios will stay encrypted.

Metro on 08/06/2014

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.