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Cops block public access to radio

Other cities plan to follow lead with new digital systems that may not allow citizens to listen in on police activities.

February 19, 2012|By Adolfo Flores, Maria Hsin and Veronica Rocha
  • As police departments make the switch to digital, they may block the public from accessing radio frequencies. (Graphic by Audrey Fukuman)
As police departments make the switch to digital, they…

As police agencies in the tri-city area settle into new digital radio systems, many departments have made, or are considering making, those communications secret, saying it is a response to a growing propensity of listeners to interfere with operations.

After spending $7 million on upgrades to comply with a federal 2013 deadline to switch police radio communications from analog to digital, Pasadena encrypted its main frequency, blocking access to outsiders. Listening in on police radio transmissions is a technique media organizations have used for decades to stay on top of breaking public safety events. It's also a technique, police say, that criminals use to their advantage.

The Burbank Police Department, which has also switched to digital, is considering encrypting a few additional channels after noticing more people getting in the way of field operations or emergency responses, Lt. John Dilibert said.

While it's not a top priority for the department, the people are “doing enough to become distracting to the officer or even fire personnel or paramedics,” he said.

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South Pasadena police officials say they plan to encrypt their channels when they make the switch to digital June 1, and San Marino is considering a similar move.

“Currently, our radio is not encrypted, but it is becoming more and more common as criminals become better at monitoring it,” San Marino Police Chief John Schaefer said.

Though he lacked statistics, Schaefer said, “I can tell you it is not at all uncommon to discover that the people we arrest either have a scanner or radio.”

Pasadena Police Lt. Phlunte Riddle said that while it's not required by federal officials, her department chose to encrypt its channel to protect victims' privacy and the safety of its officers.

“When we conduct search warrants, parole and probation searches, we have found scanners,” she said.

But despite claims of interference and criminal radio monitoring, agencies adopting the encryption method can't quantify how large of a problem it is because they do not track such incidents.

James Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Assn., said local police agencies may be well within the law to encrypt their frequencies, but it comes at the expense of public oversight.

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