San Diego County Sheriff’s Department encrypts radio communications

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department encrypts its radio communications, blocking the public from listening in on real-time information about safety issues.

The department is the latest county and state law enforcement agency to cut access to radio communications in response to a California Department of Justice mandate that requires agencies to protect certain personal information that law enforcement officials obtain from state databases. Such information — names, driver’s license numbers, dates of birth and other information from the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, or CLETS — is sometimes broadcast over police radios.

The October 2020 mandate gave agencies two options: restrict the transmission of personal information obtained from a database over public channels or encrypt their radio traffic.

Advocates for police reform say the move to encrypted channels is problematic. Radio silence, they say, would force members of the public, including the media, to rely on law enforcement’s discretion in releasing information about public safety issues.

“What it’s doing is impeding transparency and accountability,” said Youssef Miller of the North County Justice and Equity Coalition and the San Diego Racial Justice Coalition.

“We as a community need to have transparency with law enforcement — where things are happening in our community, where people are being pulled over and pulled over,” Miller said at a news conference Friday morning.

A sheriff’s spokesman said the department is exploring ways to disseminate information about incidents as they develop. One idea is an online page that would display information about the calls deputies answer.

In San Diego County, the only police agency that said it did not plan to fully encrypt its radio communications was the San Diego Police Department, which uses unencrypted dispatch channels as well as separate, encrypted channels through which private information can be shared in person .

Police officers sometimes conduct background checks themselves, using their cell phones or computers in their department-issued patrol cars. Other times, they ask dispatchers to pull the information from databases. This is usually when personal information is broadcast over the radio.

The sheriff’s department switched to encrypted channels on Tuesday. Lt. Amber Baggs, a spokeswoman, said full encryption was the better option for the department to comply with the Justice Department’s order.

“It’s not always possible for us to switch channels,” Baggs said, adding that it can be “difficult or sometimes impossible” for lawmakers to switch from an unencrypted to an encrypted channel to protect their personal information, especially in situations where develop rapidly.

Officials from several police departments across the county took a similar stance when explaining their move to encryption to the Union-Tribune in July. Some agencies have said that it is not possible for their dispatchers to handle unencrypted and encrypted channels at the same time.

For years, anyone with a scanner has had the ability to tune in to unencrypted radio communications, even more so in recent years with the advent of web and mobile phone scanning applications.

Miller, of the San Diego Coalition for Racial Justice, told sheriff’s department headquarters Friday that the move to full encryption of radio communications runs counter to the ongoing demand for more transparency from law enforcement.

“We need this type of access because of trust and transparency,” he said. “We can’t wait for law enforcement to update us on things that are happening in our community.” Police shootings, any active shooter, rapes, thefts – these directly affect our families and we need to know and get ahead of what’s going on.”

Miller noted that he is not advocating access to the personal data of people under investigation by the sheriff’s department or other law enforcement agencies.

Darwin Fishman, who served on the San Diego City Police Practices Review Board, criticized the Sheriff’s Department report on transparency and said full encryption of radio communications was “the wrong way to go in this era.”

“[For] people doing official police surveillance or people just eavesdropping and seeing if there are fires or something in their apartment building, some kind of police action, [full encryption] it can really have a significant impact,” Fishman said.

One person who often listens to radio scanner traffic is Imperial Beach resident Marcus Boyd. He said he regularly videotaps meetings between law enforcement officers and the public — he sees it as a way to hold officers accountable — and sometimes relies on scanner traffic to accomplish the task.

“Now all we have is silence,” Boyd said in a recent interview. He also spoke at Friday’s press conference.

Boyd pointed to state laws passed in recent years aimed at increasing transparency and blamed the Justice Department for crafting an order that slowed that progress.

“What [momentum] gave us a step forward,” he said, “and [agencies] they take two steps back.

He added: “It gives them an opportunity to hide.”

Boyd, a former database programmer, created his own tool: CopWatcher, a cell phone app with a variety of features, including a database of publicly available information about San Diego police officers and county sheriff’s deputies, including hire dates and salaries. He said the app, which is in the testing phase, will allow users to write reviews about officers and deputies and file complaints with the appropriate entities. It will also allow users to flag police activity, allowing “cop watchers” to respond, Boyd said.

The move to encryption hasn’t caused much public outcry, and Boyd said he thinks that’s because many people don’t know the scanner’s traffic was publicly available.

San Diego Union-Tribune editor Dana Littlefield contributed to this report.

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