Editorial: Encryption of police radio traffic should be debated

The Dechutes County Sheriff's Office. (Ryan Brennecke/Bulletin file photo)

Elected officials in Deschutes County failed the public by allowing law enforcement to encrypt police radio traffic without a public debate.

Deschutes County commissioners did express some concern about the switch to encryption but deferred to the 911 user board and the strong opinions of law enforcement. The issue never even came up before the Bend City Council.

That’s a breakdown. Public safety should be a partnership with the public. Encrypting the radio traffic undermines that partnership. The community has less understanding of what the police do. There’s a loss of timely information. And even though law enforcement promised a delayed, unencrypted feed would be publicly available, encryption is here. The public feed is not.

Why didn’t elected officials insist that encryption be debated? It is not simply a police matter. It’s a matter for the public.

Try tuning in to police radio traffic in Deschutes County. Static is what you get instead of local police agencies. Law enforcement officials claim they heard no substantial objections after they announced the change in July. That’s no surprise when nobody made the effort to find out what the public thought.

One argument for encryption is that other police departments are doing it, too. That doesn’t make it right.

The more substantive argument is that criminals can use police scanners to evade police. The related point is that journalists or other members of the public can show up at crime scenes and make more work for the police. Bend Police Chief Jim Porter provided us with six Bend examples from 2014-2017. Sunriver Police Chief Marc Mills told The Bulletin about an example of Sunriver burglars avoiding his officers, though he didn’t know if a scanner was involved or not.

Deschutes County Commissioner Tony DeBone said in his oversight role of Deschutes County 911 he did ask the question in discussions with law enforcement: Is anybody going to get upset by encryption? But he did not insist on a more public debate. “It just didn’t get attention,” he said. He said he hoped the issue would get more attention now.

It’s really no surprise that law enforcement made the decision for encryption. They believe it is the best way to protect the public and protect their officers. But it should be public officials that make important public policy decisions after a public debate. And elected officials let the public down. They should have the debate.

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