Charlie Fellenbaum

Encrypted Police Radio

American police departments have used two-way radios for 85 years to great advantage, and with no adverse effects. But recently the Times-Call reported that without prior public notification, our Longmont Police Department has begun encrypting previously open radio communications between dispatch and officers so that the public cannot hear a single word. They call it a “pilot program” but it has no end date. I find this entire action extremely disturbing.

Longmont Police notice about encryption of dispatch radio.

The argument is that sometimes sensitive information is broadcast that has the potential to compromise victim privacy and perhaps, officer safety. The police spokesman insists that this move will not affect transparency, but how could it not? No secondary distribution or publication of police-filtered accounts could possibly replace the real-time radio narrative of police and citizen interactions in our community. Other local municipalities are also encrypting communications, but that is no reason for Longmont to get on some imaginary bandwagon. There is a need to balance privacy against the public’s right to know, but this is going too far.

What is the records retention policy for all these hours, days and weeks of regular communications? Will every second of every police communication be recorded and backed up forever in case it’s needed? We need to know that. Attorneys will definitely need to know to prepare for defense or prosecution of future cases.

What’s especially difficult to understand is that it was reported that this was not done in response to a specific issue or complaint from any quarter, just some vague “buildup of concerns.” Clearly this is a solution in search of a problem. I normally don’t buy into slippery slope arguments, but will make an exception this time, and here’s one reason why.

About a month ago, it was reported that the Long Beach, California police department has adopted the use of a cell phone messaging app called TigerText that automatically and permanently deletes messages a short time after they are read. There is no possibility of data recall, and these conversations cannot be “discovered” in subsequent legal actions involving the police, especially in complaint proceedings against the department.

“I find it odd that we have a communication system that circumvents everything that we are supposed to be doing,” one officer said. How novel, an automatic electronic cover-up system that obliterates transparency when it’s needed the most.

Long Beach PD quickly suspended TigerText after civil liberties advocates and media outlets raised concerns that the app could be used to hide evidence useful to the other side in criminal and civil court cases. The city said the decision to halt the use of TigerText came “pending further review of whether the use is consistent with the city’s record retention policy and administrative regulations for the use of mobile devices.”

Do we know if the Longmont PD is also using the TigerText or Signal apps in their text communications? Please ask, Times-Call.

So I fail to see much difference between encrypted radio communications and self-deleting texts. They all lead to the same bad end, a severe compromise of the public’s right to know what their taxpayer funded police are doing, and how they are doing it.

The City Council should request and receive regular detailed information about this pilot-program-with-no-end, and be part of the implementation decision going forward because it doesn’t sound like they are now. And I hope they decide that this pilot program should be ejected without a parachute.

Charlie Fellenbaum

The writer is a former news reporter and photographer, and a Longmont resident for 12 years.