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Monday, July 28, 2014

UPDATE: Little Rock encrypting police radio traffic

Posted By on Mon, Jul 28, 2014 at 1:41 PM

SILENT RUNNING: Police radio traffic to units in the field are being encrypted. - FOX 16
  • Fox 16
  • SILENT RUNNING: Police radio traffic to units in the field are being encrypted.
Lt. Sidney Allen, the Little Rock police information officer, distributed this message today:

Our radios are undergoing the first stages of encryption. The signal could possibly return by Friday, August 1, 2014. The time frame for full encryption has not been announced.   

The message has been interpreted to mean police radio broadcasts will no longer be publicly available. 

David Koon is looking into the ins and outs of this. Forbidden Hillcrest, a Facebook page that has built a big audience by monitoring Little Rock police radio traffic, isn't happy about it, to name just one.

As of today LRPD has begun encrypting police radio dispatch, therefore it will no longer be available to the public or the press. This was done with no public discussion and with no vote before the LR board of directors. Repeated inquiries to city officials about the subject over the last several months were answered with silence or misinformation.

Public silence will be a blow to a large audience of police scanner hobbyists who monitor the channel regularly. It will also be a problem for news outlets that monitor broadcasts, not only for breaking crime news, but also for traffic problems.

Lack of immediacy will be a problem. One questions is what alternative, if any, will be provided on traffic reporting.

A bigger problem is the simple absence of information. Case in point: Absent radio traffic, would anyone have known about the wreck, shooting and chase that began in Murray Park yesterday afternoon and concluded at the Waffle House just off Cantrell Road in Riverdale? No one was hurt. But the fact that it happened might not have been publicly known absent the radio traffic. A police department interested in a city's image might decide not to volunteer so many reports about untoward events with the knowledge that none of it was in earshot of regular listeners. 

On the flip side, it's fair to note the rise of quotes on social media from scanner traffic, some of which turns out to be inaccurate. The Navy yard shooting in Washington was a particularly good (bad) example. Furthermore, there's a growing believe that, with cell phone apps, home burglars and others can tune into police radio broadcasts as a crime aid. Police also believe criminals make fake calls and monitor the dispatch of officers to plan activities elsewhere.

Little Rock is moving its signal to the Arkansas Wireless Information Network (AWIN), a time when some other departments have made the decision to encrypt. Said the Russellville police when they made the switch:

 With the AWIN system our radio traffic will be encrypted. We know that for some people this will be a disappointing revelation. We understand that some of the community monitors our traffic on scanners that they have purchased. We have already received feedback from some of the community on anticipating the change; of course not all of it was positive.

We have made this change due to communications and operational security reasons. We have noticed that not all of the monitoring of our system with scanners was done with good intentions. On numerous occasions criminals were using it to track our locations and to deter their capture.

It's unclear until we hear more if this concern figures in the Little Rock encryption trial. More to come.

UPDATE: City Manager Bruce Moore, who reportedly had had some objections in the past to encryption, tells me by e-mail that he expects the process to take effect. He wrote in an e-mail in respoonse to my question:

Chief Thomas and Chief Bucker both felt this was an officer safety issue.

Both Conway and NLR implemented last year. [The State Police are not encrypted.]

We did work to try and allow media access and I understand there is a permitting process through AWIN.

UPDATE II: a formal statement from LRPD

On Monday, July 28, 2014, the Little Rock Police Department began the process of encrypting its radio frequencies. This process is expected to take approximately one week and should be completed on Friday, August 1, 2014.

This action is being done in a preventive and proactive manner. Among numerous reasons to encrypt the frequencies, the more crucial revolve around officer safety. There are those in society who use police frequencies to monitor police presence in an area and use that information to victimize citizens of the city. In some instances they monitor calls to see if a call is being dispatched to the location where they are committing a crime.
We recognize that many law-abiding citizens monitor police frequencies to educate themselves about their surroundings. However, the safety of our officers and the protection of our citizens is paramount. We are currently finalizing a process on informing the media of critical incidents.

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