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.Rethink Decision To Encrypt

At a time when they should be trying to increase transparency whenever possible, Meriden police are about to begin encrypting all of their radio transmissions, which means the general public and the news media will no longer be able to monitor routine police activity over scanners.

Not surprisingly, the change is drawing criticism from people who listen in with their scanners for reasons including safety and curiosity, and from the media, which relies on scanners so they can respond to breaking news, like car accidents, robberies or shootings, in order to better inform the public.

But we should all be concerned whenever a public agency opts to reduce accessibility and transparency without a compelling reason - and the case for full encryption is weak at best.

Meriden police are worried that criminals may also be monitoring scanners, which is easier to do these days through smart phone apps and computers. But Meriden, like every other police department, has long guarded against this possibility by using code for sensitive information or staying off the radio entirely in favor of cell phones in certain cases.

State police decided against encryption when making a digital conversion similar to Meriden's in 2009, preferring to keep radio traffic open to the public. "Our frequency is accessible," state police spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance told a Record-Journal reporter last week. "If we need to keep things private, we either don't use the radio or we use code." This would seem to contradict the contention by local police that full encryption is necessary to ensure officer safety and the integrity of investigations.

Moreover, the very same digital upgrades that have allowed police to begin encrypting all radio traffic also make selective encryption possible in many cases. Departments have the ability to transmit sensitive information over encrypted channels if necessary without blocking the public from hearing all radio transmissions. Selective encryption - in the spirit of preserving as much open access as possible - would be a better option than giving the public complete radio silence.

One ranking police officer expressed frustration that the criticism over full encryption included in a recent news story was overshadowing an important upgrade in department technology. There's no question that the adoption of a new digital radio system, mandated by the FCC, is a vast improvement over Meriden's old analog radios. It eliminates dead spots caused by the city's unique topography making both police officers and the public safer. This is obviously a good thing. Members of the department have been planning for the upgrade for several years and deserve credit for the valuable work they've put in.

Unfortunately, officials also saw fit to reverse a decades-long tradition of transparency as part of that conversion - without any apparent public input or debate. It's only natural that this would arouse some concerns.

It's also fair to point out that the change does nothing to help restore the department's credibility amid allegations of misconduct and a federal grand jury investigation. Quite the contrary, it can only hurt.

Police officials should rethink the decision to fully encrypt their communications. They should applaud and embrace the public's interest in monitoring their activities.

It would only serve to demonstrate that Meriden police have nothing to hide.

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