Little Rock Police Begin Encrypting Radio Communications, Prompts Concerns

Jul 29, 2014

The Little Rock Police Department has begun encrypting its radio frequencies to limit criminals’ access to information about the activity of officers. The encryption process is expected to be completed by Friday.

“There are those in society who use police frequencies to monitor police presence in an area and use that information to victimize citizens of the city,” the department said in a press release on Monday.

“In some instances they monitor calls to see if a call is being dispatched to the location where they are committing a crime,” it said.

Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based journalism school, said encryption is part of a shift away from open government that has occurred across the nation in recent years.

“Newsrooms all over the country have for decades used police scanners as a really important source of figuring on what’s going on, where, why, how and so on, and dispatch crews accordingly,” he said.

Tompkins said police radio is also an important source of information for attentive residents.

“In places like Arkansas, it’s not uncommon for people to have police scanners in their home to listen to what’s going on, especially out in rural areas," he explained. "Why is the Sheriff’s car going by?’ It’s a way of knowing what’s going on in the community.”

In Little Rock, Paul Carr’s popular Facebook page and blog, Forbidden Hillcrest, relies on police scanners for crime reporting.

“I work with various people who monitor the scanners. People I trust to interpret what they’re hearing. I get breaking news tips from these people and the information does come from scanners sometimes,” said Carr.

He does not think encryption of police communication is in the public interest.

“Nobody likes scrutiny. Nobody likes it if you’re in a position where you can tune out the public and tune out the media. I think the public has an interest in public safety, I think they need to be aware of what’s going on,” he said.

Encryption is a First Amendment issue according to Rita Sklar, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas.

“I think people really need to think about how they feel about the people that we pay to protect us, who we give weapons and power to arrest and detain us, who use force, even lethal force against the citizens, how do we feel about those people who work for us operating in secrecy?” she asked.

The department said its priorities are officer safety and the protection of citizens.

“We recognize that many law-abiding citizens monitor police frequencies to educate themselves about their surroundings. However, the safety of our officers and the protection of our citizens is paramount. We are currently finalizing a process on informing the media of critical incidents,” it said in the release.

According to Tompkins, some police departments in other cities have made encrypted radio receivers available to newsrooms.  Others have increased their presence on social media and Facebook to spread information.

"That makes us pretty reliant on the police department to tell us what’s going on, but that is one thing [departments] have been doing. Seattle is a good example of that, New York City is another," said Tompkins. 

A spokesman for the police department did not respond to requests for comment.