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Radio encryption is for officer safety; not to keep public in dark
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The Manteca Police Department doesn’t encrypt its radio traffic as a way to keep the public in the dark about what is happening in their community.

That was the message that the department sent out on Wednesday with the update of the periodic “ask a cop” social media interactive discussion – providing clarity to what has been a hot-button issue with local amateur radio operators and hobbyists that have been working to get the police to open up their communications. 

According to the post, which aimed to provide a detailed explanation behind the encryption decision, it’s the combination of officer safety and protecting private information that tips the scales towards preventing the pubic from hearing car-to-car and dispatch-to-car communications.

“The main reason the police department encrypts our radio traffic is for officer safety and the confidentiality of secretive information and the private information of citizens,” the city wrote in its post. “It is not uncommon for criminals to use police scanners – many of which are available online for free as smartphone applications which turns your phone into a scanner – to monitor police activity and warn them of a police response to their crime.”

While the post did draw some support from the community, it also drew a sharp rebuke from people like Joe Molina Jr., who has been a vocal advocate for the descrambling of police radios so that the public can be informed about what is happening in their neighborhoods real-time.

“Ripon, Tracy, Stockton, Sacramento, San Francisco, Hayward, San Jose all don’t encrypt their radio traffic. The City of Oakland actually provides their own radio feed for the public to listen to because they believe in transparency,” Molina wrote in his response to the post. “If it’s truly about safety, then explain the times where MPD has done stake outs on their tactical channels unencrypted?

“You don’t realize how many people want to help the police to make this town better – like it was before.”

Advances in technology, according to the Manteca Police, also played a factor in the decision to encrypt radio traffic since nearly every smartphone is capable of receiving scanner traffic through a number of free downloadable apps. 

While people used to need a special scanner or handheld radio to receive the traffic, now anybody with a phone in their pocket has the ability to listen to unencrypted traffic. 

“Suspects who are breaking into a business or home might monitor the police scanner to hear when officers are dispatched to the alarm call at their location,” the post said. “Other criminals monitor activity on the radio and may choose a time to commit a crime in town when they hear another major incident has officers otherwise busy and less likely to be able to respond quickly.

“Still other suspects may use the information they hear on the police scanner to determine where officers might be deploying as they arrive on scene. Imagine a case where a suspect is hurting people or seeking to actively engage the police and know exactly where and when officers arrive.”

To contact reporter Jason Campbell email or call 209.249.3544.