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Baltimore Police to encrypt, delay public access to scanner transmissions starting in July

Penelope Blackwell

Baltimore Banner

Several years after the plan became public, the Baltimore Police Department is moving ahead with switching to encrypted radio systems and devices, delaying public access to live audio streams of police activity.

Starting July 6 at approximately 3 a.m., police officers will begin carrying two types of encrypted radios, according to an internal memo reviewed by The Banner. Baltimore City would become one of the first large jurisdictions in the state to delay communications to the general public by 15 minutes.

The department planned to upgrade to encrypted radio systems in 2019, according to an article in The Baltimore Sun, but it was not discussed publicly until it was disclosed the following year by a city councilman. The switch ended up being pushed back due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the time, Baltimore Police said they were following “national best practices” by encrypting radio channels, saying it would “protect potential victims and witnesses, while also enhancing officer safety.” At the time, police said they would also provide equipment to established media “as we work to be transparent while balancing public safety and privacy.”

The 15-minute delay will air through Broadcastify, an online platform that streams scanner radio communication, to modernize the police department’s “management of its radio communications, improve interoperability and enhance officer safety,” according to BPD.

“Broadcastify presents us with the opportunity to focus on officer safety,” said Deputy Commissioner Eric Melancon. “It also assists with interagency operability since many neighboring agencies are already under encryption.”

Adam Jackson, CEO of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a grassroots think tank that advances the public policy interests of Black people in Baltimore, said the BPD and other departments around the state are already not transparent enough when it comes to disclosing information, including public records.

“The fact that they would choose this as an opportunity as a way to be more opaque is deeply concerning and against the police accountability legislation that’s passed over the past couple of years,” Jackson said. “And so this is actually the opposite direction of where the police department says it wants to go.”

Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle was part of the Maryland Coalition for Justice & Police Accountability that advocated to get Anton’s Law — named for Anton Black, an unarmed Black teenager who was killed in a police encounter on the Eastern Shore in 2018 — passed in 2021. It gives citizens greater access to police misconduct and personnel records.

Jackson said his organization has fought with BPD over civilian oversight and ensuring records of police misconduct are disclosed, and an encrypted scanner is a continuation of that battle.

“The Police Department wants to continue to insulate itself from public criticism,” he said. “This is just an effort to make their processes less visible to the public and can’t serve the greater good.”

Dan Shelley, president and CEO at the Radio Television Digital News Association, a professional organization for broadcast and digital journalists, said the use of encrypted scanners is becoming pervasive across the country.

“We’re in a position at the moment where it’s almost like playing whack-a-mole. As soon as we find out and try to work with local media and local public safety agencies to try to resolve issues surrounding the encryption of these dispatch communications, another pops up somewhere else,” Shelley said. “It really is becoming what I would describe as an epidemic.”

At the start of the year, Shelley called radio encryption his organization’s biggest issue in 2023, pointing to big-city police departments in New York City and Chicago that had either joined the growing trend of departments making the move or planned to do so.

By June 2021, at least 10 cities and localities had adopted police radio encryption, including Palo Alto, California; Scott County in Minnesota; and Prince William County in Virginia, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Now, dozens of agencies have made the switch across the country.

In Baltimore, police already have secure channels that they can switch to, and officers can often be heard coordinating to take conversations to their cellphones.

According to a representative from Scan the Police, a group on Twitter that monitors scanner traffic in Baltimore City, during chases, barricade situations or other larger operations, supervisors will usually tell officers to utilize the encrypted channels police already have. But officers will frequently fail to stick to that channel, “which presumably exists for their own safety,” said the group’s representative, who asked not to be identified out of fear for her safety because she has received multiple threats.

“It could be assumed that part of encryption is a correction for officers not staying to the encrypted channel when asked to, but lack of compliance seems like a problem the department should handle internally rather than by cutting transparency,” she said.

 

Melancon said that city agencies, like the Baltimore City Fire Department, have already made the switch to encrypt their radio systems and devices. The switch by police will push the department forward in recommended compliance from the Federal Partnership for Interoperable Communications, he said.

He also said the BPD will continue to use its fully encrypted channel for SWAT and tactical communications.

 

After the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died in 2020 because a police officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck, police departments around the country became increasingly interested in implementing similar policies, limiting access to transmissions that have been public for decades, Shelley, of the Radio Television Digital News Association, said.

With police departments across the country suddenly facing more scrutiny over their practices, “instead of trying to become more transparent, they’re doing the opposite and using whatever excuse and resources they can find to become much more secretive about what they’re doing,” Shelley said.

He believes that some communication should be encrypted, such as hostage situations or other strategic law enforcement activity that requires tactical protection of officers. But in cases like when a plume of smoke arises or a neighborhood shooting occurs, all members of the public should have access, he said.

While some jurisdictions across the country have now totally encrypted all channels, others like Baltimore, have delayed their transmissions by 15 to 30 minutes or have at least provided some special accommodation to journalists and media.

Shelley said a move like this is counterintuitive to public safety, adding that in a city like Baltimore, where the murder rate was one of the highest in the city’s history last year — with population taken into consideration — coupled with a “history of questionable law enforcement practices,” he understands why a police department or a city would want to be become less transparent about their activities.

“It makes them look bad,” he said. “But it’s not about whether you’re being portrayed in a positive light. It’s about whether you’re doing your jobs. And one key way to do that is to build public trust, and you don’t build public trust by doing everything in secret.”

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