As police agencies in the tri-city area settle into new digital radio systems, many departments have made, or are considering making, those communications secret, saying it is a response to a growing propensity of listeners to interfere with operations.
After spending $7 million on upgrades to comply with a federal 2013 deadline to switch police radio communications from analog to digital, Pasadena encrypted its main frequency, blocking access to outsiders. Listening in on police radio transmissions is a technique media organizations have used for decades to stay on top of breaking public safety events. It's also a technique, police say, that criminals use to their advantage.
The Burbank Police Department, which has also switched to digital, is considering encrypting a few additional channels after noticing more people getting in the way of field operations or emergency responses, Lt. John Dilibert said.
While it's not a top priority for the department, the people are “doing enough to become distracting to the officer or even fire personnel or paramedics,” he said.
South Pasadena police officials say they plan to encrypt their channels when they make the switch to digital June 1, and San Marino is considering a similar move.
“Currently, our radio is not encrypted, but it is becoming more and more common as criminals become better at monitoring it,” San Marino Police Chief John Schaefer said.
Though he lacked statistics, Schaefer said, “I can tell you it is not at all uncommon to discover that the people we arrest either have a scanner or radio.”
Pasadena Police Lt. Phlunte Riddle said that while it's not required by federal officials, her department chose to encrypt its channel to protect victims' privacy and the safety of its officers.
“When we conduct search warrants, parole and probation searches, we have found scanners,” she said.
But despite claims of interference and criminal radio monitoring, agencies adopting the encryption method can't quantify how large of a problem it is because they do not track such incidents.
James Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Assn., said local police agencies may be well within the law to encrypt their frequencies, but it comes at the expense of public oversight.
“It's a way for law enforcement agencies to further insulate themselves from public scrutiny,” Ewert said. “From a newspaper's perspective, we see allowing journalists to use scanners as helpful to law enforcement agencies so that newspapers and their websites can instantly communicate that something is happening.”
Others note that the closed system erodes public trust by clouding government transparency.
“If we're paying for their salaries, why shouldn't we be able to tap into their frequency; it doesn't make any sense,” said Steve Ruiz, a radio enthusiast in Alhambra who's been monitoring public safety frequencies for 23 years. “You could be inviting something sinister to occur if there's no one there to monitor them.”
In Glendale — the largest of the area police departments — only tactical or undercover operations are encrypted, and there are no plans to change.
Allowing public and media access gives the city another set of ears and eyes in policing such a large area, Glendale Sgt. Tom Lorenz said.
“We can flip a switch any time and go encrypted,” he said. “We don't see the need for it in the near future.”
But representatives for the smaller agencies say protections for victims and police officers outweigh any consideration to access for the public and media.
“One of the unintended consequences when we encrypted was that the media and casual listeners would not have real-time information,” Riddle said.
But other public-access issues are also nagging the Pasadena Police Department, which unlike its neighbors, does not provide a daily arrest log because of what officials attribute to constrained resources and an antiquated system that doesn't filter out private information.
Riddle said the department is looking to hire an analyst to produce that information in the coming months, and pointed out that incidents can be tracked through crimemapping.com, which lists most crimes that have occurred in Pasadena in the last 24 hours.
Glendale and Burbank regularly post their arrest logs to their police websites.
“Providing real-time information is not something that we may be able to immediately overcome for the media's interest,” Riddle said. “Our responsibility is public safety and that's going to be our primary mission.”
In the end, officials say the tension between police and the public-access issue may ease if agencies can find an acceptable work-around. Police officials have expressed willingness to find a middle ground.
One possibility for San Marino, Schaefer said, would be to adopt Glendale's model of leaving the primary channel open, but encrypting secondary channels for tactical purposes.
“I understand the media has an interest in knowing,” he said. “We will find a way to make it work.”