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Op-ed: Encryption of Police Scanners & Public Safety

On January 31, 2018 the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office announced that the Department’s police radios would be converting from analog to digital signals. This conversion will greatly improve the ability of law enforcement officers and support personnel to communicate vital information to one another across our large and vastly spread out county.

As part of this conversion the Department also announced that radio messages transmitted on the new digital communication platform would be encrypted, which will prevent the public and members of the news media from following Sheriff’s Department activities via police scanners. While the conversion of police radios from analog to digital has been federally mandated the encryption of police digital communications has not; this is being done at the discretion of the County Sheriff.

There are sound arguments both in support and in opposition to this decision. In announcing its decision the Sheriff’s Department pointed out that encryption will promote officer safety by preventing criminal elements from monitoring their activities on police scanners, thereby learning of their location and strategies. The Department further contends that the public will also be protected by encrypting communications, to the extent that an individual’s private information (such as driver’s license numbers, addresses and dates of birth) can be used for nefarious purposes, including identify theft, if openly broadcast on police scanners.

Opponents of encryption have an equally persuasive set of arguments. They point out that encrypting police scanners will deprive the public of timely information that may be vital to public safety, such as the location of an armed suspect on the run or an active shooter. Without ready access to this information the safety of the public in high risk situations could be seriously jeopardized. Encryption opponents further contend that it could compromise the accountability of the Sheriff’s Department and its deputies, since it will force the public to rely more heavily on official departmental communications such as press releases for information concerning the activities of department personnel. Finally, opponents of this decision contend that it was made with limited public input at the cost of $ 160 million in public funds.

There is a possible solution that could reconcile the Sheriff Department’s concerns about officer safety and citizen privacy with the legitimate issues that have been raised by those opposing encryption. This would be for the Department to provide access to real-time, unencrypted radio transmissions to selected media outlets that have gone through a screening process. Under this proposed approach the Sheriff Department’s communication platform would continue to be encrypted but responsible media outlets such as the Daily Press, the Victor Valley News Group, Tri-Community News Plus and El Dorado Broadcasting would have access to, and be able to share with the general public, vital public safety information disseminated via police scanners.

Over the past year and one-half as public concerns over violent crime on the High Desert have risen to unprecedented levels, the region’s media outlets have been engaged in cooperative efforts to collectively respond to these legitimate fears on the part of their readers and listeners. Depriving these information providers of vital, timely public safety information via unencrypted police scanners represents a step backward in our efforts to combat violent crime.

On behalf of all of those concerned with such matters I urge the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office to take immediate steps to restore responsible media access to this crucial source of public safety information.

Sincerely,

Joseph W. Brady, CCIM, SIOR
President, The Bradco Companies
Trustee, Victor Valley Community College

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