Sheriff’s Department Encrypting All Dispatch & Radio Communications

In conformance with a growing national trend and what has previously occurred in adjoining Orange County, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department yesterday retooled its radio communication system from an open analog one to an encrypted digital version. The change instantly rendered all outside monitoring of the department’s dispatch and communications activity impossible.
At least as early as the 1950s, radio ham operators or others so inclined have been using crystal controlled scanners to monitor local public safety agency radio transmissions. Doing so was possible by matching the crystal, i.e., the crystal oscillator consisting of a piece of piezoelectric material used to create an electrical signal with a precise frequency to stabilize frequencies for radio transmission, used in the broadcasting unit with that used in the receiver. Law enforcement or fire safety agencies, weighing the relative benefits and disadvantages of letting the public monitor their communications in real time, for the most part came down on the side of allowing open access.
Those advantages included an atmosphere of trust and accountability and a commensurate reduction in the suspicion and distrust engendered by secrecy, together with a built-in publicity for the safety agencies’ operations, in particular their successful ones. For media outlets such as newspapers, radio stations and television stations, scanners provided a constant window on operations which could be converted to news flashes or news reports. Additionally, there were certain practical benefits to law enforcement from the real time availability of data relating to police operations, including tips from the public with regard to the whereabouts of subjects fitting the description of suspects and missing persons, or calls alerting the department about circumstances with a bearing on ongoing operations. But the openness also exposed or entailed a certain vulnerability in the function of law enforcement, giving sophisticated criminals engaged in activity such as bank robberies, armed robberies or burglaries the opportunity to use scanners to keep track of the dispatch of units, or the response of units en route, to the location of an ongoing crime. Agencies were able to counter this somewhat by utilizing specially tailored crystals for the broadcasting of so-called priority dispatches or communications relating to activities such as ongoing bank heists, commercial break-ins, etc.
County residents who were inclined to monitor sheriff’s department dispatches and were formerly able to do so were in particular miffed at the changeover to an encrypted system, as they, as county taxpayers, paid to deprive themselves of the information access they heretofore enjoyed. The county invested $160 million in the new communication system over the past few years.
In making the change, the sheriff’s department stated, “We recognize the concern from our residents and the media regarding the system shutting out the public, some who are hobbyists.” Prior to the shift, however, the department did not engage in dialogue with those hobbyists, members of the public or the media seeking to provide feedback ahead of the change or to dissuade the department from its course.
The new system is either currently integrated, or can subsequently be integrated, with the digital dispatch systems of several law enforcement agencies in the county, in adjoining counties and throughout California. The system also allows interoperability and is a single communication platform designed to play a critical role in the event of a disaster, and mutual aid requests in and outside of the county. A number of agencies across the state have already replaced their analog communication systems with digital ones, most of which are encrypted.
One advantage is that officers from different agencies in the county using the system can communicate with one another seamlessly and in utter confidence that their exchanges are not being heard by anyone without the decryption key used by the system.
According to the department, “The improved communication platform is vital to the safety of our first responders. It will enhance coverage throughout the county, improve the voice clarity and strengthen the signal to our police frequencies. The improved system will also shut out individuals who are engaging in criminal behavior that would like to know if law enforcement is coming for them. We understand the argument that the public has a right to know what is happening around them. Our mission to serve the public is our number one priority, and the new system will help us in keeping personal and critical operational information from being broadcasted to the world.”
To make up for the public’s loss of its direct window on the real time activity of the department, the sheriff’s department said it was making efforts to remedy that. “Our agency has been pushing out more media releases today than ever before, informing the public of incidents in their communities,” according to the statement from the department on February 1 announcing the system was in place. “We will continue to notify the public by way of the media, and our various social media platforms.”
Nevertheless, department watchdogs and members of the media expressed concern that the closed system the department is now functioning with will allow it to withhold information at its own discretion and that it deprives the public of an independent means of monitoring department behavior. It has been repeatedly noted that the department and the county embarked on the change in the aftermath of the Christopher Dorner incident, in which the rogue Los Angeles police officer was run to ground in an area near Big Bear by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department on February 12, 2013. Barricaded in a cabin in a rustic area north of the community of Angeles Oaks, Dorner engaged in a firefight with members of the department before perishing in a conflagration that burned the cabin to the ground. An autopsy showed Dorner died from a single gunshot wound to the head, with evidence indicating that it was self-inflicted. In the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the cabin and Dorner’s death, San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon said that his deputies did not intentionally burn down the cabin. The department maintained that the fire was the inadvertent result of pyrotechnic tear gas canisters launched into the cabin in an effort to drive Dorner outside. The devices ignited the cabin fire, the department maintained.
At the news conference announcing the results of Dorner’s autopsy on February 15, 2013, McMahon reiterated the claim that deputies had not deliberately set the cabin on fire.
In a recording of the sheriff’s department’s communications in the minutes just before the cabin erupted in flames captured by a county resident using a scanner, however, a member of the department can be heard giving the command, “Get the gas. Burn it down.”
For the time being, the old analog system is to remain in place, unused, providing the department with a redundant communication capability. Given the existence of a dozen or more “dead spots” within 20,105-square mile San Bernardino County where radio reception can be spotty, switching to the analog band will take place on occasion, most likely.
Those using a digital scanner will be able to hear and decipher fire department broadcasts, which will not be encrypted.
-Mark Gutglueck

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