Police move toward encryption of scanner traffic in San Diego County

A statewide directive calls on police agencies to protect certain personal information, but not everyone is on board


By David Hernandez
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — When gunshots ring out in a neighborhood, a police scanner can come in handy. News reporters listen to scanner traffic to piece together what is happening. Sometimes residents tune in via cellphone apps.

Now, more and more, that source of information is being cut off. Most law enforcement agencies in San Diego County have encrypted or will encrypt their radio communications, limiting access to real-time information about crimes and other public safety matters.

Officer Ruben Lopez with National City Police Department looks at the MDC in his vehicle during an investigation.
Officer Ruben Lopez with National City Police Department looks at the MDC in his vehicle during an investigation. (Tribune News Service)

Some observers worry the changes will impact the public's ability to know what's happening in their neighborhoods.

Mailyn Fidler, a legal fellow with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said scanner traffic allows reporters to serve not only as sources of information but also as police watchdogs.

"It's a really important (tool)," she said.

The move toward encryption is the result of a statewide directive that calls on law enforcement agencies to protect certain personal information — names, drivers license numbers, dates of birth and other information from the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, or CLETS — from being broadcast over police radios. The California Department of Justice gave agencies two options: to establish policies to limit the transmission of such information on public channels or to encrypt their radio traffic.

The order came after the Department of Justice and FBI reviewed state and federal regulations in light of controversy after cities in eastern Riverside County cut off public access to scanner traffic in late 2018.

In response to the order, law enforcement agencies across the state — including Long Beach, San Jose and Oakland — have moved toward encryption.

The only agency in San Diego County that said it would not switch to full encryption was the San Diego Police Department, which uses dispatch channels and what are known as inquiry channels. Officers and dispatchers use the inquiry channels, which are encrypted, to run background checks. The Police Department issued an order in December reminding its officers to switch over to its inquiry channels when they broadcast information drawn from CLETS.

The system is a network of databases that contains information about criminal and driving records. Police officers sometimes tap into the databases on their department-issued cellphones or computers in their patrol vehicles. Other times they ask dispatchers to pull the information from the databases. That's usually when personal information is broadcast over radio traffic.

The San Francisco Police Department seems to have struck a balance — to a degree. Dispatchers will unencrypt channels to send officers to calls, then switch back to encryption. When incidents come to an end, dispatchers will unencrypt channels and broadcast how the call was resolved, Sgt. Michael Andraychak said.

He said the "solution" was developed "as a means to provide some information to the public while still protecting (personally indefinable information) and other information that could compromise officer safety or investigations."

The Department of Justice said the bulletin was a reminder of long-standing policies, but some police officials said the directive was unexpected and forced their agencies to make the changes.

"We wouldn't have made any changes had the DOJ bulletin not come out," Chula Vista police Capt. Don Redmond said.

Lt. Chris Woodward of the Harbor Police Department, which patrols San Diego Bay and the San Diego International Airport, said: "My impression is that this DOJ bulletin caught everybody off guard."

The Chula Vista and Harbor police departments notified the public — through press releases — about the changes to their radio communications. Other local agencies that made the change to encryption did not.

Woodward said he understands the concerns that encryption limits transparency but also highlighted what he saw as another potential issue with unencrypted communications: identity theft. He said unencrypted scanner traffic provides an opportunity for fraudsters to jot down people's person information, such as names and social security numbers.

"I do think it is wise to have a system like this in place to prevent the malicious use of personal information," Woodward said. "We do have some responsibility to ensure that we're taking some steps to prevent that."

Some officials whose agencies encrypted or will encrypt their communications said there was no other feasible way to comply with the Department of Justice order. Officials with smaller departments in particular said setting up a separate, encrypted channel was not an option because their staff doesn't include enough dispatchers to manage an inquiry channel like the San Diego Police Department.

La Mesa Police Department Services Manager Christine McMillen said one dispatcher usually helps officers in the field with tasks such as looking up information in databases.

"As a smaller agency, we do not have the personnel available to support an inquiry channel as other larger agencies do," McMillen said.

In Coronado, police Chief Chuck Kaye said the few dispatchers on his staff would not be able to turn their attention to an inquiry channel in the event of a large-scale emergency.

"Based on our size and staffing, it appears full encryption is the best way to go," Kaye said.

Some police officials also said they considered inquiry channels an inefficient option and a potential safety risk for officers. Having officers and dispatchers switch to an inquiry channel could leave officers responding to an incident in the dark about pertinent information, they said.

The San Diego Police Department is not the only agency that staffs inquiry channels. Others include the county Sheriff's Department and the Escondido Police Department.

However, Escondido's inquiry channel, which is encrypted, is staffed only during daytime peak staffing in the dispatch center, which takes calls for the city's police and fire departments. If the dispatcher staffing the inquiry channel needs to handle 911 calls, the encrypted channel goes offline, police Lt. Kevin Toth said.

Several police officials said news media will continue to have access to information about emergencies. They pointed to various avenues their departments use to disseminate information: spokespersons, news releases, social media and Nixel, a platform that enables alerts via email and text messages.

But sometimes Nixel alerts and social media posts from police agencies offer vague and limited information. Nixel alerts often notify the public only of "police activity" on a street block and ask the public to avoid the area. And news releases are not always timely.

Aaron Mackey, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the switch to encryption means reporters — and the public — will be forced to rely on the discretion of law enforcement in releasing information about day-to-day public safety matters.

"I think it's always problematic when the public and the news media are reliant on ... law enforcement to tell the public what's happening," Mackey said. "Scanners are an important tool in that arsenal of learning (about public safety issues)."

He added that at a time of scrutiny of policing issues, such as police violence, eliminating an avenue for access to information is a "real step backwards."

He also said blanket encryption is unjustified. He said times when officers and dispatchers discuss personal information from databases represent a narrow slice of interactions between police and the public. He added that he is not aware of any cases in which the media or public misused personal information from scanners.

"People are listening to understand what is happening in their communities," Mackey said.

Toth, from the Escondido Police Department, said scanner apps present a safety issue because criminals listen to unencrypted radio traffic and could use the information they hear to harm officers responding to an incident.

According to the state Attorney General's Office, "Law enforcement agencies may decide to use encrypted radio communications for a variety of reasons, including transmission of confidential CLETS information. By law, CLETS information is only available for the official use of criminal justice agencies."

The rules do not appear to leave space for news media access to encrypted channels. Toth and several other police officials said they do not believe the order allows them to give special access to news media.

The Escondido Police Department, which switched to full encryption months before the order, worked with some news organizations to offer them encryption keys. But the bulletin "kind of killed (the plans) in the water there," Toth said.

In 2019, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, who at that time was a state assembly member, introduced a bill that would have required law enforcement agencies to provide media access to encrypted channels upon request.

Nick Serrano, who was Gloria's then-communications director — he's now the mayor's deputy chief of staff — told The Desert Sun the proposed legislation came in response to a nationwide trend toward encryption of police radio communications.

"We believe news media have a right to access police radio communications," Serrano told the newspaper. "As much as this is an issue of transparency and right-of-access, Assemblymember Gloria also sees this as a public safety issue. We rely on media outlets to provide emergency information to the public and much of that is garnered through their access to police radio communications."

Gloria later withdrew the bill because it failed to make it to a vote under legislative deadlines, his staff said. The mayor declined an interview for this story.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

©2021 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Visit sandiegouniontribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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