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Local Police in Maine Adopt Encrypted Radio System

In Maine, police departments in Lewiston and Auburn have moved to a new encrypted radio system that cannot be picked up by civilian scanners. Proponents say the tech will help reduce misinformation and fraud.

Close up of police radio
(TNS) — Yes, it's true. Police scanners no longer pick up transmissions from some local police departments.

Lewiston and Auburn police departments have gone to a new encrypted radio system that cannot be picked up by the regular police scanners owned by many civilians.

Paul LeClair, director of the Lewiston- Auburn 911 Communications Center, explained it this way:

"The 800MHz radio system — Auburn and Lewiston — police frequencies are 100-percent encrypted," LeClair said Thursday, as the system unrolled. "The translation is that LA911 will ensure the police frequencies remain secure and encrypted by managing the new radio system technology. LA911 will not grant access to the police department frequencies to non-public safety agencies."

The new system went online earlier this week, at a cost of $4.5 million to taxpayers. It had originally been scheduled to launch last February.

There had been no public discussion on the matter, so the radio silence came as a surprise to many scanner owners across the Twin Cities.

All day on social media, local residents who like to monitor police chatter in their neighborhoods complained that they could no longer do so. No formal announcement was made by police or 911 committee officials that the change was coming.

The encrypted radio traffic only affects Lewiston and Auburn police.

As of Friday, the Androscoggin County Sheriff's Office, as well as fire departments in both cities, were transmitting with the old system. Their traffic could still be heard on common police scanners and in apps that monitor emergency traffic.

Androscoggin County Sheriff Eric Samson said the county's dispatch system is not encrypted.

Lewiston and Auburn police had argued that they need the new system to communicate in areas with tall buildings.

According to Samson, that's not an issue on the county level.

LeClair, on Friday, provided the history of the new system:

"Work on the radio project, including improving radio system towers and connectivity, began in 2018," he wrote. "The radio system itself was introduced as an FY20 capital project jointly funded by Auburn and Lewiston. These projects were included as part of each city's capital budget process. The radio system project was awarded to the EF Johnson Company through a bid process and the contract was signed on August 12, 2019. The contract price for the radio system and all related equipment is $4,553,132. Warranty cost will be spread over a 15-year period through the LA911 operational budget."

The February launch was delayed, LeClair said, due to COVID-related travel restrictions which prevented EF Johnson staff from traveling to Maine.

In Auburn, Deputy Police Chief Tim Cougle said the new system is a benefit to "community protection, officer safety and responsible reporting."

That latter observation considers the many news reporting pages that have proliferated on social media — pages that often report erroneous information.

"More and more we see social media sites popping up reporting inaccurate and often embellished information as fact," Cougle said Friday. "This can cause panic and confusion in the community that is most often unwarranted and unnecessary. When a critical incident is unfolding, the department will notify those in potential danger through legitimate communication channels such as department-run social media, reverse 911 phone calls (automated notification calls via LA 911), SMS, text, email alerts, and press releases."

Under the new system, legitimate news organizations are also incapable of listening in on police radio chatter, at least for the time being.

The change was a shock to many, but it was no surprise to those in the police communications business. Talks on encryption in Maine date back at least to 2012. And not just in the Twin Cities.

In 2013, Perry B. Antone Sr., then public safety director in Brewer, issued a letter explaining the nature of encrypted systems. He wrote the memo in response to the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, which had raised encryption as a possible public access issue.

Perry argued that encryption did not violate public access laws and saw no reason to prohibit police from obtaining it.

"Much of the information already transmitted across police frequencies is NOT public information according to Maine statutes," he wrote. "We believe that existing public access legislation adequately balances the needs of law enforcement to keep certain information private with the right to know of the public. Current practices and commonly available technology that most police departments already employ, i.e. cell phones and mobile data terminals, already keep much information from being broadcast over the radio."

The Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, in response, decided not to draft legislation seeking to challenge encryption. They made that decision, in part, based on assurances from police that encryption was not something police agencies in Maine were considering, according to Right to Know Advisory Committee records. At the time, police groups said the cost of the system was too high to be considered.

There is no law in Maine that governs the issue of encrypted police radio transmissions, according to the committee. Departments are permitted to encrypt if they want because there are no regulations — from Maine or from the Federal Communications Commission — saying they cannot.

According to The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, police switching to encrypted transmissions is a growing trend across the country. According to the group, since October 2020 at least 10 cities and counties have adopted police radio encryption, including Palo Alto, Santa Clara, Simi Valley, California City and San Jose, in California; Decatur and Macon counties in Illinois; Scott County in Minnesota; Prince William County in Virginia; and Fargo and Cass counties in North Dakota.

Resistance to the move has also been a trend. In June, Colorado's state legislature passed a bill requiring police agencies that fully encrypt radio communications to enact media access policies in consultation with the media.

To date, no such move has been made in Maine.

In other parts of the country, police officials have said that encryption is necessary to keep citizens' personal information private. In Auburn, Cougle reiterated those concerns.

"With identity theft and fraud on the rise," Cougle said, "encrypted communication channels prove to be the most secure, preventing citizens' personal information from being broadcast on public airways such as dates of birth, Social Security numbers, home addresses, and driver's license numbers."

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