Encryption of emergency calls limits freedoms

Few could argue that our founding fathers opposed this nation’s citizenry having a right and responsibility to participate in government. Indeed, citizen involvement is a critical ingredient in democracy.

That is true in every aspect of government — including law enforcement. That’s why we are so concerned with ongoing steps toward encryption of emergency dispatch and two-way radios that allow communication between police officers, dispatchers and, in some communities, firefighters or emergency medical responders to be kept secret.

What’s worse is the move toward police radio encryption locally has come with little or no public debate, despite the fact that each of these emergency response agencies work for us, the taxpayers, and all police or fire transmissions, calls and conversations occur utilizing public airwaves and frequencies.

It is the taxpayers who are funding the very expensive upgrades to MARCS police radio systems intended to improve officer safety by upgrading clarity and distance of radio communications. But it is those new MARCS radio systems that are enabling encryption of the transmissions.

We believe that in America, residents and, yes, media, who own police scanners or smart phone apps and who have the desire to listen in on emergency responses and other dispatched calls as they develop simply should have that right.

Instead, though, police departments such as Warren, the Trumbull and Mahoning County Sheriff’s offices, Youngstown police and many others in the Mahoning Valley, now may respond to calls and speak in total secrecy.

The Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office made the switch earlier this summer from an analog radio system to a digital one, allowing its radio transmissions to be encrypted, Ernie Cook, director of the Trumbull County 911 Center told us at the time.

Simply put, the move meant people with police radio scanners or phone apps can no longer tune into the department’s radio traffic and listen in on calls.

Youngstown and the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office made the same switch recently.

Police sources have told us there is no requirement for departments to encrypt their radio traffic, but many of those that have opted to do it have cited officer safety.

While we understand that argument, we believe that public safety should be a partnership between first responders and the public.

Radio traffic encryption, however, undermines that partnership. Information is not shared in as timely of a manner; police and first responders take full control of information and solely determine what should be released publicly — despite the fact that the public has full rights to know or access information from initial incident response.

In many communities, significant barriers already exist between the police and members of the community they serve and protect — both locally and nationwide. The decision to decrease public access as incidents develop can only serve to further erode police relationships with the community. Encryption will create new limitations in relationships and in the understanding of what police do.

We fear that each time we take a step toward secrecy, we are limiting public access and moving us closer toward a police state.

We believe strongly in openness. If people have a scanner and they want to know what’s going in their community, they should be able to listen.

This issue is not simply a police matter. It’s a public matter.

And the decision toward secrecy is wrong.

After all, shouldn’t we all be concerned with public rights and openness?