Police in Virginia Want to Encrypt Their Radios

The Virginia Beach Police Department is asking for a $6.2 million, five-year investment to stop criminals from listening to police scanners. But the move would also hinder journalists and the general public.

by Robyn Sidersky, The Virginian-Pilot / May 8, 2018
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(TNS) — VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — City police plan to begin encrypting all the radio channels they use, ending the public’s ability to listen in.

The encryption will go forward if the City Council approves a five-year investment of $6.2 million when they vote on their budget May 15.

In city documents, police said encryption is needed because criminals listen to police communications. It would greatly increase officer safety and help protect citizens, they wrote.

But it could also affect media coverage of public safety and undermine the relationship between the press and the police, said Megan Rhyne, executive director of Virginia Coalition for Open Government. Police have been encrypting scanners for a number of years, reacting to a larger trend.

“Information about police activity in the hands of the public is increasingly seen as a threat to police,” she said. “This seems to be part of that overall direction.”

The implementation costs are about $5 million, with another $250,000 each year for vendor support. Though it would be paid over multiple years, the multi-key encryption would be implemented in nine to 12 months. All city police radios and those used by Emergency Communications and Citizen Services dispatch and the city’s liaisons in other departments and agencies would be affected – 2,400 radios total.

Acting Mayor Louis Jones said he expects it to be approved when council votes on the budget May 15.

“It’s in the capital improvement program,” he said. “I don’t anticipate that there will be any discussion on that particular issue.”

Virginia Beach police declined to comment for this story, but in council documents described five situations where the public being able to hear police in real time impeded their work.

In 2011, they wrote, they were zeroing in on a suspect wanted for multiple burglaries who was hiding at his girlfriend’s house. But when they went in to nab him, he was gone.

It turned out he had been listening to them talk about the impending arrest over their radios, using a police scanner app on his phone.

Other examples point to Facebook groups where people listen to scanners and post what they hear. There are at least two in Virginia Beach. One has nearly 18,000 members, the other about 4,500. At least one member said in a post that he plans to fight the department’s decision.

About a year ago, Harry Brogan created the smaller group, Virginia Beach Police Scanners. Brogan said he sets ground rules.

“I do not ever want to see a specific address posted,” he said. It helps keep police safe, and doesn’t encourage people to show up to what might be an active scene, he said.

Two screenshots of posts made by an administrator of the other Facebook group were included in documents police sent to the council. Both were by the same person – one about a stabbing, the other encouraging members to aid police waiting for backup. The latter appears to date from College Beach Weekend, when thousands of young people flocked to the Oceanfront.

Councilman John Moss asked police to explain their need for encryption in March, prompting the department to put their rationale in writing. He told The Virginian-Pilot in an email that he believes encryption is a good thing and that everyone should do it.

Rhyne said the public doesn’t necessarily have the right to listen to police scanners, just as it doesn’t necessarily have the right to listen in on people’s phone calls or sit in on city staff meetings. But there’s a public interest in being able to know about public safety incidents, and it’s an avenue toward police accountability, she said.

It’s uncommon for police departments in larger cities to want to encrypt all channels, said Charles Jennings, director of the Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Norfolk, Chesapeake, Portsmouth and Suffolk all use some encrypted channels for tactical reasons, but the majority of their channels are open, those departments said.

Jennings said police often encrypt their tactical channels but leave general operations channels open. If a situation becomes too sensitive, officers then have the option of switching to a protected one.

Encrypting all channels could also complicate communications with emergency response teams, Jennings said. The switch could prevent fire departments or emergency medical services from responding quickly unless they’re provided with – or purchase their own – equipment.

Leaving dispatch communications open benefits the public and news outlets as well, Jennings said, especially in extremely dangerous situations.

“Ultimately, in a breaking disaster-type scenario, you want the press to have good information quickly so they can pass it on to the public,” Jennings said. “There’s always an inherent delay in a reporter waiting for a [public information officer] to craft a statement and pass it on to the media.”

Using encrypted channels can be beneficial for law enforcement, as long as it’s done properly, said Eddie Reyes, chairman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police communications and technology committee and director of public safety communications in Prince William County.

“Unfortunately, a lot of law enforcement agencies deploy encryption without a well-thought-out plan,” Reyes said. “It’s a very good technology, it just has to be rolled out properly.”

For instance, encryption can make it difficult for a department to communicate with neighboring law enforcement agencies if they don’t use the same system, he said. That could be a problem when a suspect crosses into other jurisdictions.

“Criminals don’t know borders. They just go as fast as they can and cross as many borders as they can,” Reyes said. “As long as your neighbors have the same level of encryption, then there is no problem. But if they don’t, that can really break down communications.”

Brogan’s been listening to scanners for about 40 years. He said he remembers when police departments switched to modulated frequencies. For a while, the technology wasn’t readily available to the public. But when capable scanners hit the shelves, listeners tuned in once again.

“It worked for a little while, but as soon as people and companies figured out how to get around it legally, we went back to listening,” Brogan said.

He said he expects technology soon to provide a way around this new encryption as well.

©2018 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.