Staff photo by Joshua Curry
Sergeant J. Newberry uses his handheld radio to speak with dispatch. The Wrightsville Beach Police Department may soon convert to an encrypted radio channel only available to law enforcement and other public safety departments.
The Wrightsville Beach Police Department will likely soon follow the Wilmington Police Department and New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office in encrypting radio transmissions.
The New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office announced earlier in March it would follow the Wilmington Police Department’s January decision to encrypt radio transmissions. Officer safety was the major concern for both departments.
“We had situations where suspects knew we were coming before we got there. It became dangerous for operations,” said WPD Public Affairs Officer Linda Rawley in a March 17 phone interview.
Sgt. Jerry Brewer, public information officer at the sheriff’s office, said the same concern underpinned its decision.
“We’ve seen criminals using scanners and technology devices with apps that allow scanner activity. We needed to better protect ourselves,” Brewer said during a March 17 phone interview.
Brewer said encryption at the sheriff’s office should be complete in April.
Wrightsville Beach Police Department Chief Dan House said his department might have to encrypt as well, but for a different reason.
“It’s not really something we want to do, but we will probably all have to because of interoperability,” House said during a March 17 phone interview.
House said it is important for major disasters that departments can communicate. But once other departments encrypt, WBPD will not be able to pick up their frequencies.
“We don’t have any issues with people who want to hear us,” House said, adding that he knew the sheriff’s office and WPD had problems with suspects listening to scanners and setting officers up, especially with gang-related violence.
Members of the public and the media who use scanners to be aware of breaking news are troubled with the decision. Some concerns are rooted in the lost source of information but others are concerned with unnecessary secrecy. Some are arguing that encryption is illegal.
N.C. General Statute 132 states communication between public law enforcement officials broadcasted over public airwaves is open to the public.
The question regarding the law is whether the public is entitled to real time access or if it is sufficient to have access afterward.
“For officer safety reasons, I don’t see why people couldn’t get it after the fact,” House said.
The encryption discussion coincides with Sunshine Week, an event launched by the American Society of News Editors to advocate the importance of open government.
Jonathan Jones, director at the N.C. Open Government Coalition at Elon University, said he does not think encryption is favorable.
“Whether it must be revealed in real time is an interesting argument. My opinion is that encryption is not a good route. It takes away accountability by the public,” Jones said during a March 17 phone interview.
Jones added public use of scanners is not a new development.
“A government agency is attempting to take information out of public view that has been there for more than 40 years. That is not good for trust in the government, for the republic having faith in law enforcement agencies and how they behave,” he said.
Jones said many agencies have avoided encryption for the interoperability concern confronted by the WBPD, citing interoperability concerns during 9/11 as a trigger for the conversation.
“Here is a prime example of the problem. Smaller law enforcement agencies face the decision of limited communication or encryption. It’s the Wilmington Police Department deciding for all the agencies in the region,” Jones said.
Brewer was unable to give opinions about public concern. He did say interoperability was always an important issue at the sheriff’s office.
“We’re trying to protect officer safety, and that’s the most pivotal point in making sure we can conduct investigations,” Brewer said.
All fire and EMS transmissions will remain open.