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Police departments beginning to encrypt radio communications

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Uniden Bearcat TrunkTracker IV. Image credit: Tony Webster via Wikimedia Commons.

Police in Knoxville and other parts of the country are taking steps toward encrypting their radio communications in order to increase operational security and protect officers.

The Knoxville Police Department will have encrypted radio transmissions by August, partially in response to citizens who listen to radio transmissions over smartphone police scanner apps and go to the scene to document what’s going on.

One such citizen is John Messner, who founded the Knoxville Crime social media group. Regularly heading to incidents, Messner was at ground zero during an altercation in 2014, when he photographed a Knox County deputy with his hands around the throat of a handcuffed student.

“I was at the right place at the right time,” he said. “I listened to the scanner and I heard things escalating.”

The deputy was initially fired over the incident but was later allowed to retire.

However, embarrassing incidents such as this -as well as security and safety issues- are prompting KPD to move away from radio communications that can be picked up by scanners.

“When you’re putting out information that only a suspect, a victim and an officer knows, then all of the sudden you have someone put that on social media, that takes your advantage away,” said Darrell DeBusk, a Knoxville police spokesman.

DeBusk added that smartphones have made scanning police channels easier than ever before.

“You’ve always had people that had scanners, but it was not as common as the

smartphone apps,” said Mr.DeBusk. “We actually have arrested people, they’ve had the

smartphone on them and we could hear our own dispatchers, the sound coming from

their smartphone.”

Other agencies, including the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, have begun encrypting radio traffic, alleging that criminals “monitor police radio frequencies in order to better

facilitate their crimes and gather intelligence about the whereabouts of police officers.”

Some departments have simply encrypted special units -such as SWAT teams- while leaving the “grunt work” police channels open for public listening.

According to The Wall Street Journal, many scanner listeners are unhappy about the recent move towards encryption, as some use the frequencies to help in solving crimes, getting media to crime scenes and keeping up to date in emergencies.

“There are six or seven times a year where I avoid dangerous situations where I know what’s going on,” said Robert Wareham, a former police officer-turned-lawyer, who helped draft an ultimately failed bill in Colorado that would have sought to make police encryption illegal in all but the most sensitive cases.

“These are government agents working for the taxpayers and I think citizens have the

right to know what they’re doing,” Wareham added.

Smartphone public scanners don’t just listen to police chatter- air traffic, emergency services and just about any non-encrypted communication can be accessed and followed.

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