Encryption of Delaware police radios creates some static

Agencies seek to protect privacy, safety; opponents cite lack of transparency

Posted 7/18/21

DOVER — Joining other states’ law enforcement agencies, Delaware State Police encrypted all their radio transmission channels March 22.

That has been done, police officials said, in an effort to protect the privacy of victims, as well as the safety of officers.

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Encryption of Delaware police radios creates some static

Agencies seek to protect privacy, safety; opponents cite lack of transparency


DOVER — Joining other states’ law enforcement agencies, Delaware State Police encrypted all their radio transmission channels March 22.

That has been done, police officials said, in an effort to protect the privacy of victims, as well as the safety of officers.

But others are concerned that the move limits the public’s right to know.

“We have no channels available or open to the public, media or others,” said DSP spokesman Master Cpl. Gary Fournier, who noted that Wilmington and New Castle County police encrypted their transmissions before DSP did so.

According to Cpl. Fournier, there were a few reasons the encryption was enacted.
“First, this is to protect victims’ rights. When our dispatchers broadcast an address for specific crimes (i.e., sexual offenses, personal crimes like domestic assaults, etc.), this information should not be privy to the public.

“Next, we want to ensure the public is receiving accurate information to incidents that occur around the state. There are social media outlets not directly connected to accredited media that will report inaccurate information prior to the investigation being completed by law enforcement.”

He added, “Our public information office’s purpose is to provide factual information and assistance to any and all valid media inquiries, with the realization in mind that the public gets its news through the eyes and ears of television, radio and newspaper media representatives.

“Lastly, it is to protect our Delaware law enforcement. Having the radio transmissions open to the public also means the criminals have access and can monitor our locations along with areas we are being dispatched.”

The dispatches of nearly all municipal police agencies in Kent, New Castle and Sussex counties became encrypted in March, as well, since their communications are transmitted through DSP’s Emergency Operation Centers.

Municipal departments continue to have access to encrypted radio transmissions, Cpl. Fournier said. Fire companies only have access to mutual-aid channels, he added.

Dover police spokesman Sgt. Mark Hoffman said his department has had an encrypted radio system “for several years.” In addition, the Dewey Beach and Rehoboth Beach police departments have their own dispatch centers in Sussex County. Rehoboth Beach PD began encrypting its dispatches April 9, according to Chief Keith Banks.

With the encryption, anybody with a scanner and the capacity to monitor police radio transmissions lost access.

For freelance reporter Alan Henney, who works for the radio station WGMD during the summer, encryption put a crimp in his ability to cover potential news stories. Mr. Henney said DSP dispatches — now encrypted — would typically include the type of complaint and the incident location.

“From a news perspective, this was especially helpful, especially with determining the severity of accidents and traffic,” he said. “It is also good to get notice of working incidents, crime trends and patterns and also the type of crimes the police are investigating.”

While Mr. Henney lauded DSP for doing “a great job typically in news releases,” he added that “the problem is that often those come out the following day or days later. That is stale news. Photo ops are gone, witnesses are long gone, and it is a dull, old story that newsrooms may decide to skip entirely at that point.

“Or every news outlet will run the same news release using the same mugshot rather than more informative crime scene photos. This also leaves the police spokespeople in the important position of determining what ‘news’ is and not the news outlets.”

WGMD Director of Broadcast Operations, Engineering and Programs Walt Palmer is advocating for an open DSP channel, describing the radio station as being “in the now business.”

The opportunity to monitor police transmissions is vital to the public’s interest and safety, he said.

“WGMD is appalled by the sudden lack of transparency displayed by the Delaware State Police through encryption of their dispatch radio channel,” he said.

“Previous to their encryption, both the public and various news organizations were able to monitor real-time dispatch communications. Why is this important? If you live around the Sussex Correctional Institution and a prisoner escapes, locals and news outlets knew immediately.

“If there is an incident on any of the major highways in and out of the state, radio stations and websites could report the information immediately. If there were to be police activity that restricted movement into certain areas, the information was available immediately,” he said.

“Under the new rule, the public now must rely on email information provided by DSP public information officers, which is often issued hours or days following an event,” he added. “DSP is using the excuse that troopers have broadcast proprietary information over their airwaves. Then, why are troopers not trained to switch to tactical channels, rather than deprive the public of critical public safety information?”

The issue has the attention of at least one state legislator, as well. According to Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, a Georgetown Republican, “I understand law enforcement agencies’ desire for secure communication of sensitive or operational information over radio.

“That is precisely why both portable and in-car units have the ability to switch up to secure talkgroups within the current system, an ability and practice that has been done for years. Information on current activity and police dispatch, including individuals who are being actively sought in our communities, should absolutely be made available to the public in real time.”

Sen. Pettyjohn continued, “Vital information that the public should be made aware of is unnecessarily delayed by denying the public, hobbyists and the media the ability to monitor police dispatch channels.”

Police perspective

There’s an array of benefits for encrypted radio transmissions, according to at least some municipal police officers.

“The encryption gives police added security during an active scene,” Seaford police spokesman Master Cpl. Eric Chambers said.

“With the ever-changing technological advancements, the general public is able to easier listen to police radio traffic, and when we are at an active scene, especially a critical incident, we do not want to take the risk of curious people coming close to the scene to see what is happening or a suspect to know police planning or operations prior to their arrest or ongoing investigation involving them.”

In Milford, department spokesman Sgt. Rob Masten said, “Privacy of victims, potential suspects and reporting persons, as well as possible officer-safety concerns, are the primary reasons we feel this is the responsible way to operate.

“Obviously, there’s times in which our community needs to know information for their safety, or we need our community partners to assist us with an investigation. In those cases, we make sure to get that information out quickly through social media, our website and our Swift911 system. Swift911 allows us to do citywide messaging or targeted messages to specific communities. We utilize Facebook, Twitter, Nextdoor and Instagram for our social media messaging.”

Sgt. Masten added, “Those platforms are helpful with getting out safety-related messages, weather updates or any other topics that we feel are helpful to our community.”

Dover PD’s Sgt. Hoffman said false narratives of an incident can spread quickly following an initial dispatch.

“Oftentimes, amateur and established media have put out premature information as it comes across the radio,” he said. “Oftentimes, officers arrive on scene to an incident, and it is not what was dispatched initially.”

Sgt. Hoffman noted that, while police transmissions may be encrypted, other first responder channels are available and connected to ongoing responses.

For instance, he said, “An early-morning vehicle crash involving a bus (recently) came in as a mass-casualty incident, prompting several media outlets to report that lone fact.”

However, “when officers and medical personnel arrived on scene, only the driver of one vehicle required medical treatment. While the crash was significant and resulted in a four-hour road closure, the initial information put out by the media and ‘amateur media’ or radio enthusiasts was based on the initial dispatch with no follow-up information provided, causing a lot of misinformation to spread, especially on social media.”

Also, Sgt. Hoffman said, encryption “helps in preventing onlookers from going to active scenes and can also help officer and public safety in high-stress situations where a suspect or someone in crisis can hear or be provided information from radio transmissions (from family, friends, social media posts by media, etc.).”

Closed channels could thwart assaults on officers, Smyrna police spokesman Sgt. Brian Donner said.

“Ambush-style assaults on police officers are up nearly 90% in the last few years,” he said. “Having the public listen to our radio communications would put our officers in potential danger, as it may reveal their static locations when they are working and unable to complete their mission, while also keeping their head on a 360-degree swivel.”

Additionally, Sgt. Donner said, “We also at times have undercover or covert operations being routed on our radio channel that, if listened to, could put serious felony-level investigations in jeopardy.

“We routinely run individuals’ information over the radio, to include information such as Social Security numbers, dates of birth, addresses, etc. For all of these reasons, encryption is necessary.”

Rehoboth Beach PD Chief Banks said that “With the progression of technology and the advancement of social media having police radio transmissions available to the public can present various scenarios of safety concern.

"These concerns are amplified in a jurisdiction such as ours that is densely populated and quickly traveled on foot.”

According to DSP, there are certain channels that are not encrypted and are utilized by mutual agencies for different details. These inoperable channels are not encrypted when being utilized, so the public has access to them, Cpl. Fournier said.

With those available channels, Kent County Levy Court Department of Public Safety operations have not been affected by the encryption, Director Colin Faulkner said.

Harrington Fire Co. Deputy Chief Earl K. Brode said the mutual-aid channels allow his firefighters to communicate with DSP as needed and that the encryption did not affect operations. Deputy Chief Brode is also a captain with the Harrington Police Department, adding that the police agency’s radio transmissions are encrypted.

The Dover Fire Department has its own transmission channel that is open but can be encrypted as needed. Chief David Carey said DFD was not impacted by police encryptions, due to the mutual-aid channels.

When to encrypt

While there’s a push to reverse the decision to encrypt transmissions, the call isn’t for a complete opening of dispatches to the public.

That’s according to American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware Executive Director Mike Brickner, who said, “Encryption of police radio frequencies may be necessary in some situations to protect sensitive investigations or circumstances where public safety could be compromised.

“However, widespread encryption also may pose significant hurdles to public safety because it may prove difficult for police agencies to collaborate with outside law enforcement agencies, as well as other public and private agencies that may need to be part of a public safety response plan.”

According to Mr. Brickner, “By encrypting all police radio frequencies, law enforcement also prevent the public from accessing information about its day-to-day operations. Members of the press, government watchdogs and interested residents often listen to police scanners to keep updated on significant public safety developments, how police departments operate and (to) understand what issues in the community police officers devote their time and resources to.

“Delaware is already a state that ranks as worst in the nation with regard to transparency of police misconduct records, and reporters and advocates routinely note the difficulty in obtaining public records from police agencies. The decision to encrypt police radio frequencies adds another layer of secrecy in a state that is already opaque, which serves to undermine trust among community members.”

Meanwhile, on July 6 in Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis signed into law House Bill 21-1250, which requires that “a law enforcement agency that encrypts all of its radio communications shall create a communications access policy, through collaboration with Colorado-based media outlets, that includes an agreement governing access for the media to primary dispatch channels or talk groups through commercially available radio receivers, scanners, or other feasible technology.

“The policy may include, but (is) not limited to, verification of media credentials; reasonable restrictions to the use of the commercially available radio receivers, scanners, or other feasible technology; and financial or other costs related to the sale, lease, or loan of the commercially available radio receivers, scanners, or any other feasible technology.”