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Manchester Police: Nothing 'nefarious' behind city radio silence

New Hampshire Union Leader

September 14. 2016 10:42PM
Dispatcher Rachel Kobelenz dispatches a call from the Manchester Police Station on Wednesday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER — Manchester police acknowledged Wednesday that they recently began encrypting all police radio transmissions, putting police communication outside the prying ears of reporters and everyday people with a scanner or smart-phone app.

Police issued an unsigned statement early Wednesday afternoon, as complaints grew about muted police radio scanners over the last several days.

Two weeks ago, Manchester police plugged into the city’s new, debt-funded $5.8 million emergency radio system, a Motorola APX7000L. The encryption began Friday, Assistant Police Chief Carlo Capano said.

Police said encryption helps to keep police officers safe and protects the privacy of citizens.

“We can assure you that our decision had absolutely nothing to do with trying to hide any type of nefarious activity,” the four-paragraph statement reads. “Our reasons ... (are) to provide an updated radio system, protect the public’s privacy, and protect our officers as they work day in and day out to provide a service for the city of Manchester.”

But the move to encrypt police radio transmissions has raised the concern of media, social media and freelance journalists. Media outlets often rely on radio broadcasts to arrive at a crime scene or accident on a timely basis.

Jeff Hastings, a freelance photographer and videographer, said he understands that sensitive activity, such as a SWAT operation, a homicide or mental health matter, should be confidential.

“In our opinion, hearing everyday calls adds a level of transparency and accountability,” Hastings wrote in an open letter. “As journalists and providers of information, we are now reduced 100 percent to what MPD wants to tell us.”

In an email, Capano said Manchester aldermen and the Police Commission are aware of the decision to encrypt the radio.

The encryption was made possible with the implementation of the new emergency radio system, police said in the statement.

Both the new and previous systems offered the ability for police to encrypt a broadcast whenever they deemed it necessary. But poor sound quality and reception prevented frequent use of encrypted broadcasts with the previous system, police said.

The statement offers three reasons for encryption:

• Privacy. “When we transmit a medical call, a criminal check, a juvenile or adult name that may be a victim to a crime, that information and identity should be protected,” the statement reads.

• Officer safety. “Given the national narrative regarding police officers and the attacks on them, this was an important factor in our decision,” the statement reads.

• Monitoring. In the statement, police said that some people follow officers around and interfere with their job. Police Commissioner Mark Roy noted that “anti-police organizations and others that may not want to do the right thing” can trace police on scanners.

Roy said police, firefighters and paramedics were recently at Valley and Elm streets and shots were fired in their direction. The shooter could have learned of their location through a scanner, said Roy, who added that the encryption affects him, too.

“My very expensive, programmed Radio Shack scanner is totally useless,” Roy said.

Alderman Thomas Katsiantonis, the chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said he remembers discussions about the new emergency radio system, but can’t recall whether encryption was part of it.

If that’s what Police Chief Nick Willard wants, Katsiantonis supports it, he said.

He noted that last June, a panic ensued when parents heard, apparently through scanners, about a supposed gun in the trunk of a car parked at Memorial High School. It turned out to be an Airsoft gun.

“All the parents were upset and crying. They heard it on Facebook. It was crazy, crazy,” Katsiantonis said. “This is better for the safety of the people.”

Chris Blue, an electronics system technician with the city, said the new P25 trunk system complies with national standards to make all police radios compatible. It also eliminates dead spots in the city.

The system includes two new towers, 1,429 radios and software, he said.

He said some other city departments such as buses, Water Works and the Highway Department, are already on the new system. Fire and Ambulance join early next month. None will be encrypted.

“It never even crossed my mind to close our system. We’re, I guess, a different organization,” said Fire Chief Dan Goonan.

Blue said it is not possible for citizens to circumvent the encryption.

“What we have is the highest level of encryption made,” Blue said. “This is what the military uses, the FBI, the DEA.”

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