The Little Rock Police Department is going dark.
With the exception of conversations with other city departments on "open" group radio channels, the department's day-to-day radio calls, ranging from bank robberies to traffic accidents, will no longer be available to the public starting tonight, according to city officials.
Little Rock police and city officials are citing officer safety concerns for the departmentwide encryption of its radio channels, and the department will join its North Little Rock and Conway counterparts in scrambling radio signals to prevent anyone outside of law enforcement from listening in.
According to police officials, encrypting scrambles radio transmissions, making them unavailable to anyone without a computer software encryption "key."
The encryption plans are drawing criticism from some organizations, as well as questions from city board members who say a better balance must be struck between officer safety and the public's right to know what's going on just down the block.
The announcement that the state's largest police department -- which handles roughly half a million calls a year -- would encrypt its radio channels came early Monday evening.
Department spokesman Lt. Sidney Allen said he didn't know when the decision was made and deferred to the chief's office.
Allen said that neither new Police Chief Kenton Buckner nor the assistant chief and administrator over the encryption process, Wayne Bewley, would be available to comment on the new practice until Friday, the day after the encryption of the radio channels.
City Manager Bruce Moore said that the encryption option was "always on the table" when city leaders began devising plans to upgrade the city's outdated communication system.
The switch from the department's old analog radio system, which required maintenance crews to find replacement parts on eBay, was one of many major capital upgrades funded through the increased revenue collected by the sales tax passed by voters in 2011.
With a cost of just under $9 million, the overhaul took department radios digital and plugged them into the Arkansas Wireless Information Network. The network allows for greater communication, or "interoperability," between agencies across the state, according to Laura Martin, head of the Little Rock police communications division.
The Arkansas Wireless Information Network, started in 2006, has over 27,000 radio users, 80 percent of whom are within police or fire agencies statewide. The rest are mostly emergency-management and other public-safety personnel.
During a Jan. 21 Little Rock Board of Directors meeting, the board approved spending $149,487 to pay for upgrades, licenses, and encryption software. Of that, about $96,000 was needed to encrypt the radios, Martin said.
"Put it in perspective, this was [$149,487] of a $9 million upgrade," Moore said. "It no longer keeps me up at night that our 911 system could fail. Overall, we're all in a safer place."
Safety is the driver behind the push for encryption, according to Moore, who said police transmissions shouldn't be open to criminals with a scanner or a scanner smartphone application.
Moore said encryption was always "on the table" in the city's plans to upgrade its emergency communications.
"The discussion centered around officer safety. In looking at some [officers'] experiences, they've encountered, they felt very strongly [encryption] was a tool that could be used and give an additional benefit to officer safety," Moore said. "There was always the concern of the main dispatch channel [being open]."
The decision to begin encrypting the police radio channels took some city directors by surprise.
Board member Stacy Hurst, who championed the 2011 sales tax increase, in part because of the need to upgrade the police radio equipment, said there was never any mention of encryption during the sales tax campaign.
"I worked hard to get it passed, and I don't recall it being discussed. I do not recall it being a talking point," Hurst said. "Was it in the fine print somewhere? I can't say for sure."
It wasn't until several months ago that the police chief at the time, Stuart Thomas, mentioned that the department would use encryption on a few sensitive channels but keep most channels open for public access, according to board members.
Ward 5 City Director Lance Hines said he was led to believe that the encryption would be limited.
Since the announcement, he said, he has gotten calls and emails from constituents worried about the department's decision to cut their access to radio chatter.
"It's a delicate balance between keeping the officers safe and our ... public's right to know. [Thomas'] feeling was they weren't going to encrypt everything," Hines said. "I think everyone's scratching their heads going 'How did we get from here to there?' I think there's a better solution than what we have right now."
City directors could take up the department's encryption decision.
"I think we're probably going to need to have a broader discussion on the board level," Hines said. "The [department's] decision was not what we thought it would be."
Paul Carr, the creator of the Forbidden Hillcrest Facebook page, a social-media site dedicated to tracking crime in Little Rock, thinks he and others were fed "misinformation" since it became public that the department was investing in encryption.
Carr, whose site has over 34,000 followers, thinks the proposed encryption will reduce the flow of crime information to media and the greater public to a "trickle."
"I think it will diminish it a great deal. If I was in charge of the city, I'd be tempted to do what they're doing," Carr said. "It'll reduce scrutiny on me, it'll reduce awareness of crime, and from a political perspective, it's as good as solving crime."
Added Carr: "If you're in charge of the police, if you could simultaneously reduce [public] scrutiny and sell it as an officer safety issue, imagine that opportunity."
Allen, the Police Department spokesman, pointed out that several agencies in Arkansas and across the nation have encrypted police radio channels.
North Little Rock police encrypted their digitally upgraded radio system back in January, according to Capt. Leonard Montgomery. Like Little Rock police, they are now also able to access talk groups from across the state on the Arkansas Wireless Information Network.
"We had too many people out there with iPhone apps who knew we were out there," Montgomery said. "[Officers] would walk up to the car [and] hear their radio transmissions [from the iPhones]. It's an officer-safety issue."
When asked for a specific incident, traffic stop, or arrest where an officer felt unsafe, Montgomery was unable to offer any.
The arguments for encryption in Little Rock are the same, according to Allen, who said that too many criminals are able to avoid capture or lie in wait for officers by using police scanner applications on their phones.
Those applications, however, typically only offer the main dispatch channel, while officers have multiple channels that they often use to conduct business.
"You don't know how many have gotten away because they've gotten away," Allen said.
Like Montgomery, Allen couldn't cite any specific arrests or incidents where suspects were relying on either scanner applications on their phones or old-fashioned police scanners to thwart or endanger officers.
Holly Dickson, an attorney with the Arkansas chapter of the Arkansas Civil Liberties Union, said that her organization stands behind the department's efforts to protect officers, but not at the expense of locking the public out.
"Good policy and practice is to only use encryption when it's needed instead of blanketing it so the public has no knowledge of what's going on," Dickson said. "The public's inability to listen can, in some instances, inhibit public safety. Accurate information is better than speculation which is what we have when the public have no information. ... Fear, rumors, speculation, imaginations will fill in."
Allen and Moore both said the department is working to find a new way to inform the public and the media of crime and public-safety incidents as they unfold. As of Wednesday, Allen said, he had no concrete steps to share.
Tom Larimer, head of the state's press association, sympathized with departments wanting to increase officer safety but said that transparency "is the price we pay" for open government, even with law enforcement.
The loss of police scanners, long a staple of any media organization, will inhibit effective news-gathering and make media more dependent on information supplied by the same law enforcement agencies they cover, he said.
"It imposes a filter in the release of information. [Police scanner traffic] allows news gathering people to go to the scene and gather information for themselves. It gives them an ability to know what's going on," Larimer said. "Now we're becoming more reliant on what police will tell us what happened. I don't know if that's in the interest of public safety."
Moore said the city is also supporting an initiative to get media members access to the Arkansas Wireless Information Network and its encrypted police channels but that process is still in its early stages and part of it would include a standard for the city to define what exactly a "media member" is.
Penny Rubow, operations director for the Arkansas Wireless Information Network, said requests by media groups, or other entities not part of law enforcement, would have to be approved by the local authority that oversees the encrpyted traffic and only then go before the network's steering committee for approval.
Of the few requests that have come in, none has been granted, Rubow said. Those refusals came in part because the network has a cap on private users' access, roughly 5 percent of the network's usage, so that the remainder can be utilized by public-safety entities.
Metro on 07/31/2014
Print Headline: LR today puts police radio in encryption