Encrypting police chatter threatens transparency

With apologies to any victims of my unforgivable stereotyping, I’ve long considered a police scanner to be an extraneous bit of Heathkit gadgetry only interesting to three groups of people. One, bottom-feeder trial attorneys desperate to be first on the scene of a “traumatic brain injury or wrongful death,” to quote a local radio commercial. Two, reporters desperate to scoop the competition at a crime or disaster. And three, now-grown-up high school audiovisual guys sitting alone in their basements, headphones on, desperate for something interesting to come along.

I’ve never thought of these devices as front and center to how we the people police our own police, along the lines of “trust, but verify.”

The police scanner serves as a public loudspeaker of everything law enforcement officers say to each other on the job. But it’s losing its voice.

The world is digitizing, including radio. As police communications shift from analog to digital, scanner enthusiasts have been able to follow along by upgrading their equipment.

However, digital presents an opportunity analog does not: the ability to scramble the content such that only those with the encryption code — a form of password — can listen in.

So, for the first time in my recollection, the Fort Collins police, like many departments across the country, are able to go private with their communications, silencing the scanners.

Should you care? Regardless of how you stand on the issue, yes.

Opponents of encryption send a clear message: The police work for us, the public. We have a right to keep tabs on them to make sure they do their jobs as we expect. Granted, we think highly of our local police here in Fort Collins, but throughout history our society has encountered too many instances of law enforcement exceeding their authority.

Supporters of encryption are equally clear: The technology helps to protect citizens’ private information and helps the police do their jobs better.

I had trouble understanding that last point, so I went straight to the source. An acquaintance of mine is a retired Fort Collins police officer. Because of his long tenure with the force and some important research he’s been doing, I consider him an expert. “Is this encryption a good thing?” I asked.

He didn’t hesitate. “Absolutely. In case after case over the years,” he said, “criminals used scanners to anticipate police tactics. Sometimes they would flee the scene before we could apprehend them. Other times they found creative ways to disrupt law enforcement, based on their advance knowledge.” He also explained how the curious public often shows up at a crime scene after hearing about it on their scanners and then gets in the way.

He’s right. Encrypting police communications will mean fewer bad guys get away and fewer crime scenes will be disrupted by voyeurs.

But I worry about the bigger price tag. I like that the Freedom of Information Act sheds light on documents once hidden by the U.S. government. I like C-SPAN’s watchful cameras and armies of journalists with pen in hand. I like that Tuesday’s election included poll monitors from both parties and separate monitors to keep tabs on the monitors.

It’s a tough tradeoff, but I believe transparency of government strengthens our democracy. Encrypting police communications weakens it.

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