Mahoning deputies may get radio encryption

Published: 5/22/16 @ 12:10
By Peter H. Milliken (


Many Mahoning County deputy sheriffs would obtain the ability to encrypt their radio transmissions under the county’s plan to buy new radios for them as part of its 911 emergency-dispatching consolidation.

Encryption makes radio transmissions inaudible over police scanners available to the public.

Local law-enforcement officials say the ability to encrypt their radio transmissions helps them thwart burglars and identity thieves.

The director of Youngstown State University’s journalism studies program is concerned, however, that encryption can interfere with the interests of the media and the public in knowing about activities of public concern while they’re occurring.

The encryption move would give deputies the same ability to communicate confidentially by radio, which Austintown and Boardman police have had since the 1980s.

The county’s plan, announced in March, calls for purchase of new radios for the deputies, which would be compatible with those of Austintown and Boardman police.

The county learned Friday that its application for a $300,000 local government safety capital grant from the Ohio Development Services Agency to buy the new radios has been denied and that only 39 of 900 applicants for that funding were approved, said Maj. William Cappabianca of the sheriff’s office.

The county will reapply for the money later this year, he added.

The 911 consolidation plan calls for closing the county’s 911 dispatching center 12 to 18 months from now and transferring its functions and dispatchers to the Boardman and Austintown dispatching centers.

Encryption ‘a necessity’

Maj. Cappabianca said encryption capability is necessary in today’s law-enforcement environment.

“The ultimate goal is to keep your officer safe and be more successful at solving crimes while in the act,” he said.

In years past, police scanners were bulky devices, which were typically found inside homes, he noted.

“Cheap, user-friendly technology has made it easy for the bad guys to know where law enforcement is, where they’re responding to and estimated arrival times,” he noted.

“It’s as simple as an app on your smartphone,” he observed.

“In an effort to keep up with technology being used by crooks, this is a necessity that law enforcement has to hide their internal chatter to have a better success rate,” Cappabianca said.

Unless they’re with regional law-enforcement task forces, such as the Mahoning Valley Law Enforcement, Drug or Violent Crimes task forces, Youngstown city police lack radio transmission encryption capability, said city Police Chief Robin Lees.

When the city explored converting its police radio system to permit encryption for all its officers and cruisers several years ago, the cost was estimated at $2 million, which would be prohibitive, Lees said.

He added, however, “With the advances in technology, that number may have come down.”

The city has 156 officers, each with a portable radio, and 40 cruisers in its marked patrol fleet, each with a cruiser-mounted radio, he said.

Even though they lack radio encryption, city officers can communicate confidentially with dispatchers, and car-to-car, via text messages on their cruiser-mounted computers or via cellular phones, Lees noted.

Although radio-encryption capability would be desirable, the lack of radio encryption for city police “has not had a significant adverse effect on our operations,” Lees said.

Encryption should be ‘rare’

“Listening to first responders and scanners has always been part of what we do in the newsroom. It’s always been part of our watchdog function on behalf of the people,” said Mary Beth Earnheardt, associate professor and director of the journalism program at Youngstown State University.

“Encryption should be used only in rare instances,” where it would protect information that can legally be withheld from public disclosure under Ohio’s open records law, she said.

“I see encryption as a form of verbal redaction. It should only be used in the instances that are specifically designated under the law, and not for all the information that’s being broadcast,” Earnheardt said.

Encryption of Social Security numbers is reasonable to prevent identity theft, she added.

Encryption of a burglary- in-progress call to enable police to catch the burglar in the act probably would fall within the open records law’s exemption of active investigative information from disclosure, she said.

Lees said he believes it’s legal in Ohio for a police department to encrypt all its radio transmissions, but, even if it would become affordable for his department to do so, he wouldn’t do that without consulting the city’s law department.

Years ago, he noted, the media couldn’t monitor the calls patrol officers would periodically make to the station from neighborhood call boxes as they now monitor unencrypted police radio transmissions on scanners, Lees observed.

Police who have encryption technology have “come full-circle” back to the unmonitored call-box days, he added.

The sheriff’s department plan is for about half the new sheriff’s deputies’ radios to have encryption capability, with the deputies having the option of switching from encrypted to nonencrypted transmissions as circumstances dictate, Cappabianca said.

The sheriff’s command staff, detectives and patrol and drug and vice investigation units will have encryption capability, but the jail and courthouse security units won’t have it, he said.

“Cost is a factor. We have to be frugal on behalf of the taxpayers,” Cappabianca said, noting that encryption capability costs about $400 per radio.

In the past, Boardman police would use encryption to transmit Social Security numbers and other confidential information and not use it at other times.

Thirty months ago, however, Boardman police switched to a radio system that encrypts all of their transmissions.

burglars foiled

Under the new system, no burglaries, in which thieves entered from a rooftop, have been reported to Boardman police, observed Jack Nichols, Boardman police chief.

“A lot of criminals, if they can’t monitor us, they won’t mess here,” he observed. “It’s important that we have this feature,” Nichols said of encryption.

“There’s a lot of stuff that can be mined out of police radio traffic by people who want to commit identity theft,” if it’s not encrypted, he explained.

When police radio communications are not encrypted, the appearance at accident scenes of uninvited tow truck drivers, who’ve heard about the crash on a police scanner, is a minor problem, Nichols said.

In jurisdictions where school shootings have occurred, however, he said audible scanner communication has prompted many people to converge on the scene and thereby interfere with emergency responders.

As for the interest of the public and the media in knowing about police activities, Nichols said these activities become matters of public record after police reports are written about them.

“Anybody with a need can obtain the information they need through the public records law,” Nichols said.

Government should be ‘open’

“Government should be transparent. Government should be open. Government should be available to the citizens who pay for government to have access to understanding what’s going on,” Earnheardt said.

“It just seems an overreach by the police to encrypt absolutely everything and cut off that vital line of information,” she added.

“Think how many stories have been broken through listening to the scanners in the newsroom,” and having the media show up on the scene, she said.

Today’s media work on a round-the-clock news cycle, Lees observed, adding that initial incident reports on a police scanner are often inaccurate.

“When you first get those first calls, the media jumps on it, and they start broadcasting this stuff before they really know what’s going on. Is that responsible?” Lees asked.

Austintown police selectively encrypt radio transmissions to keep Social Security numbers and dates of birth from being intercepted by identity thieves, to protect medical information that federal law deems confidential and to prevent thieves from learning that police are en route to a burglary in progress, said Robert Gavalier, that township’s police chief.

“We only use it when we have to. Sometimes they’ll go for days without using it,” Gavalier said of Austintown police.

If officers can switch from encrypted to nonencrypted transmissions, however, Nichols observed that police officers may forget to make the switch.

State perspective

No formal opinions have been issued by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office concerning encryption of police radio transmissions, said Jill Del Greco, a spokeswoman for that office.

“A radio transmission cannot be a public record subject to the Public Records Act because it does not meet the definition of a record,” said Dan Tierney, another spokesman for that office.

“Under the Public Records Act, records must be of a fixed medium. Radio broadcasts are not a fixed medium. Recordings of such broadcasts are on a fixed medium, however,” he added.

Tierney added, however, that he was not saying recordings of encrypted police radio broadcasts become public records unless they fall into one of the exemptions under the public records law.

The attorney general’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation encrypts its radio transmissions when it is engaged in covert operations, such as conducting surveillance on someone or performing other undercover work, Del Greco said.