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No radio silence for NH state police

New Hampshire Union Leader

September 18. 2016 9:33PM
Rachel Kobelenz dispatches a call from the Manchester police station. The department is encrypting all radio transmissions, which means the public can no longer listen in via scanners. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER — Although the state’s second-largest police force has switched off its radio transmissions to the outside world, few if any other New Hampshire police departments appear poised to do so.

(Click here to see today's related editorial.)

Some police officials say they will continue to use open channels to broadcast routine police communications, but maintain the option to switch to encryption for sensitive items such as a SWAT deployment or a drug raid.

Yet they were hesitant to criticize the Manchester Police Department, which on Sept. 9 encrypted all radio broadcasts.

“Our troopers are out there, they’re always very professional, they’re transparent in their work. ‘Transparent’ I think is a good word,” said New Hampshire State Police Capt. Christopher Wagner, commander of support services, which oversees radio transmissions for state police.

Police officials in other New Hampshire cities such as Nashua, Portsmouth and Keene said their normal radio transmissions remain open to anyone with a scanner. Such is the case for towns bordering Manchester, including Goffstown, Hooksett and Londonderry.

A smattering of police forces around the country have put their radio communications off limits. Anchorage did so recently, and police communications in Washington, D.C., went dark in 2011.

At the time, Washington Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said the encryption allowed police to deter crime, catch criminals, keep officers safe, prevent identity theft, protect victims and even thwart terrorism.

“There is no right to listen to police communications in which we need to share far more information than that which is open or important to the public,” Lanier said at the time.

Many other police departments keep routine communications open. For example, police radio communications in Dallas — where five officers were killed and nine injured earlier this year — can be heard with a cellphone app. Police radio communications in Boston, New York and Chicago are also easily available with a smartphone.

“It is, in part, a cultural thing — it varies from agency to agency,” said Adam A. Marshall, the Knight Foundation attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

“It’s not clear to me there’s a causal link to having access to a police radio and violence (against police officers),” Marshall said. “Is there a legitimate safety reason/public policy reason or is it to clamp down on access and a larger culture of secrecy?”

He said most open records laws deal with written records and don’t cover live police radio broadcasts.

Last week, Manchester police released a four-paragraph statement explaining the decision to encrypt all radio transmissions. It said that officer safety and the privacy of people who come in contact with police — whether a juvenile or a crime victim — were two reasons.

It also mentioned a “concern of some people following our officers around and some even interfering with the officer’s duties.”

When asked for specific instances of Manchester radio transmissions that endangered officers or prompted complaints about privacy violations, Assistant Chief Carlo Capano said he would no longer comment on the statement.

He said interference has happened in the past, but he would give no specifics.

In Hooksett, Police Chief Peter Bartlett said he would not want to encrypt all police calls. He said the public has always listened in to police calls with scanners, and he tells his officers that any radio call — even encrypted calls — have a potential to be a public record.

In Nashua, Police Chief Andrew Lavoie said a recent upgrade gave the police the ability to encrypt all broadcasts, but they have not done so.

“That’s how it is here. We certainly can (do it),” he said. “I can totally see why that’s something (Manchester) considered and ended up doing.”

The new system allows interoperability, so if other departments have encryption-capable radios, they will be able to hear Manchester’s broadcasts, Wagner said.

Wagner said state police troopers need approval from a supervisor to switch to an encrypted channel, and he said troopers rarely do so. Theoretically, a trooper may want to encrypt while a pursuit is taking place, but usually their attention is focused on the pursuit and not adjusting a radio.

“We rarely do it,” Wagner said. “That’s the state police operational need, want and desire. It has been historically.”

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