Some police and fire departments are bucking a trend to conceal dispatch communications from the public, saying that radio encryption has the potential to backfire and put first responders in danger, reports the Associated Press. Some agencies with digital radio systems have turned off the encryption to their main dispatching channels and others have decided not to turn it on. They say their officers may not be heard during emergencies by responders at nearby departments with radio systems that don’t have access to their encrypted channels or aren’t advanced enough to have encryption capability.
Critics argue that encryption decreases police transparency at a time when it is needed, especially after shootings of unarmed black people by police officers. “The overwhelming opinion of encryption is that it works great for preplanned tactical environments like SWAT teams staging a situation,” said Eddie Reyes, deputy chief of Amtrak police and chairman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police communications and technology committee. “But for day-to-day operations where officers are going across borders in emergency pursuits or foot pursuits, that’s where it tends to break down. A good number of agencies are still operating on antiquated systems and would not have the ability to accept encryption.” A slow trend continues toward encryption. It hides communications from public airwaves by modifying voice signals with coded algorithms, preventing people from listening via radio scanners, the Internet, and cellphone apps. Only people with encryption “keys,” the information needed to access the encrypted channels, can listen.