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Baltimore Police moving to encrypt scanner transmissions, keeping public from hearing calls

As part of a planned upgrade of its radio systems, the Baltimore Police Department is switching to encrypted transmissions, eliminating the ability for most of the public to listen in.

The preparations were confirmed by City Councilman Yitzy Schleifer, head of the public safety committee. He said the upgrade has been planned since last year and was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

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But officials have not discussed publicly that the new technology would feature encrypted communications.

Police issued a statement Tuesday night saying: “In following national best practices, the Baltimore Police Department is working to encrypt it’s emergency communications channels to protect potential victims and witnesses, while also enhancing officer safety. We will be providing equipment to established media outlets, as we work to be transparent while balancing public safety and privacy.”

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While some smaller sheriff’s offices in Maryland encrypt their communications, Baltimore Police would become one of the first large jurisdictions in the state to limit public access to police radio transmissions.

Hundreds of agencies throughout the country have made the switch, however, including the Washington, D.C., police department, which began encrypting its communications in 2011. New Orleans, where Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison served as police chief until early 2019, encrypted its communications system last year.

Police radios have been public for decades, though in recent years technology has made the communications easier to access: There are free apps that stream police transmissions, while others use what they hear to populate Twitter accounts, like Scan the Police, and apps, like Citizen.

Those pushing to encrypt radio transmissions say it’s necessary to prevent suspects from listening in on police movements, as well as to prevent the broadcasting of someone’s personal information. Notably, police already have secure channels that they can switch to, and officers can often be heard coordinating to take conversations to their cellphones.

Schleifer said the city is planning to provide radios to the media, provided that they sign a “memorandum of understanding” that would put some limitations on what information can be shared. It was unclear whether other interested individuals or groups would be able to take part as well.

In Colorado, reporters can’t monitor Denver police communications because the city insists on a purchasing agreement with two provisions deemed unacceptable by news organizations — one letting city officials examine newsroom records related to the scanner and another indemnifying the city if there is a lawsuit related to information from a police radio, according to the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

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