Silencing Scanners: Manchester Police Encrypt All Radio Communication

Sep 21, 2016

Credit Andrew W. Sieber/flickr

Members of the public who had been able to listen in on police communication in New Hampshire’s largest city are now in the dark.

The Manchester Police Department earlier this month encrypted all police radio transmissions, silencing scanners and apps that could monitor the communication.

Despite this raising concern about transparency among some in the city, aldermen Tuesday night voted down a proposal that would have required the department to switch back to open radio communication.

New Hampshire Union Leader reporter Mark Hayward joined NHPR’s Morning Edition to talk about his reporting on this issue.

What do you know about why Manchester police made this change?

They give three reasons. One is officer safety, and they point to the terrible incidents that happened earlier this year in Dallas and Louisiana. They talk about privacy, because sometimes people’s names and information do go out on the police airwaves. They also say they are monitored by organizations, such as CopBlock and Free State Project.

And those organizations are watching police, CopBlock being known statewide for following police and looking for things the police may be doing wrong.

Right, and in a four-paragraph statement they put out, they didn’t name any organizations, but in some off-handed conversations I’ve had with officers, those two organizations do come up.

 And as you report, there have been complaints from some. What are critics of the move saying?

That it hurts transparency. People want to know what’s going on in their community.

We should say the Union Leader put out an editorial critical of the decision. The newsroom relies on the scanner to pick up on news stories, as all newsrooms do.

Has the department responded at all to the criticism?

They explained it. They put out a statement explaining the decision, but they don’t want to take follow-up questions about it. It came about because they invested several million dollars in an upgrade to their system, and the upgrade has a lot of positives. It allows police in different agencies, for example Hooksett and Manchester, to talk with each other, as opposed to having to go through dispatch. It also gave them the ability to encrypt all channels, so they selected that.

My understanding is that even with the old system, they did have some ability to encrypt communications, but they chose not to. So why make the change with the upgrade?

The ability with the old system, and just about all police departments do this, is if there’s a SWAT raid going on or if there’s something sensitive, they can switch to an encrypted channel, but usually most broadcasts are open and available to the public.

You looked into whether this is common practice among other police departments across the state. What did you find?

I couldn’t find any that do it. Of course, there’s hundreds of police departments and I didn’t check with all of them, but state police don’t do it. The largest cities, such as Nashua, Portsmouth, and Concord don’t do it, so Manchester is really an outlier on this one.

What about nationally? Are there departments across the country that use encrypted transmission?

There are. Washington, D.C. a few years ago did it, and that’s probably the biggest department I know of. But I’ve used my little cell phone app to check to see what other departments are available and New York, Chicago, Dallas, Boston are all available. Anyone with the cell phone app can listen anywhere.

I checked with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and they said this isn’t an issue like open meetings or open records. They can choose to encrypt. The public doesn’t have a right to access these broadcasts.