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