LUZERNE COUNTY, Pa. — The question of whether police radio transmissions should be encrypted inspires strong opinions on both sides — and one local police department has asked the public to weigh in on the issue.
Those in favor argue encryption — which would prevent the public from listening to police communications — is an officer-safety issue, since criminals listen to scanner transmissions.
Those opposed argue that encryption denies the public access to information it has the right to know, and poses a danger of police operating without accountability.
Encryption is a timely issue in Luzerne County, where a new digital 911 communication system is being rolled out this year. The system offers the option to encrypt police transmissions.
On Saturday, Wilkes-Barre Twp. police started a poll on the department’s Facebook page, asking readers to vote whether they support encryption for some or all police calls. The post generated hundreds of responses.
Comments to the post from township police seem to indicate support for encryption, giving an example of a fleeing suspect who listened to a scanner app playing live audio of police looking for him.
West Pittston police Chief Michael Turner favors encryption.
“I definitely support it,” Turner said Sunday. “It gives us some protection as far as bad guys having a radio.”
Turner described encryption as an officer-safety issue, though he said no officers from his department have been injured because of open scanner transmissions.
Officers have found portable radios programmed to police frequencies in the possession of suspects, Turner said.
“There are some operations we go out on we are using cell phones because we don’t want transmissions done on the radio,” the chief said.
Comments on the Wilkes-Barre Twp. Facebook page show a wide range of opinions on encryption.
Mary Jarrett, of Plymouth, who frequently posts to social media about borough and community issues, said she has become a big supporter of police from listening to scanner broadcasts. She said a three-minute delay would be acceptable but that police calls should be open to the public, noting “sunshine disinfects and removes the we/they that permeates our society today.”
Others who commented said transmissions about tactical incidents such as hostage situations should be encrypted, but not standard police calls.
A man who said he is a firefighter in Connecticut said he has gotten a head start on emergency calls by listening to open police transmissions.
Some expressed support for encrypting all police calls, to ensure officer safety and protect the privacy of innocent people.
Others took the polar opposite view, that a publicly funded communication system should be open to the public without restriction.
Luzerne County does not plan to encrypt fire or emergency medical calls, officials said last week at a demo of the new radios and equipment.
Questions remain as to whether police transmissions will be encrypted once the new system goes live, and whether that decision will be made countywide or left up to individual police departments.
Following last week’s equipment demo, Andy Zahorsky, data and technical support manager for Luzerne County 911, said the county will not mandate the use of encryption.
Emergency responders interviewed since then have given conflicting opinions as to whether the county will stipulate encryption of police calls countywide, or if police departments will have the option whether or not to encrypt transmissions.
Fred Rosencrans, county 911 executive director, said in an email sent Thursday that issues involving encryption are “under review” and there is no deadline for decisions to be finalized.