Police cite officer safety as reason for encryption

Kahle Magalis

FRONT ROYAL – Communications on the Warren County Sheriff’s Office’s and the Front Royal Police Department’s new radios will be fully encrypted, with Sheriff Daniel McEathron and Chief Kahle Magalis citing officer safety as the primary reason for the decision.

When communications become encrypted – with the sheriff’s system expected to be installed this month and the police department’s by year’s end – the public will not be able to hear communications on devices such as scanners.

Gerry Boyd, a Motorolla technician, said encryption is a service offered but it is up to the customer whether to enable it.

McEathron and Magalis said their concerns do not lie with the general public but with criminals who listen to officers communicate. Magalis said this “100 percent, absolutely” occurs and poses a threat to officer safety. 

“We’ve had people we picked up saying ‘we knew you were coming, we heard it on the scanner,'” he said.

Daniel T. McEathron

He added that non-encrypted communications also provide criminals the chance to ambush police.

Magalis painted a possible scenario in which drug dealers hear of an impending raid and have time to set up “booby traps,” get weapons or prepare a barricade.

The encryption, he said, “makes it that much harder for bad guys to pull those kinds of maneuvers on the police.” 

Brian Myers, Winchester Police Department radio communications manager, said the department encrypts anything beyond basic traffic calls. He also cited safety concerns as the reason for this decision.

Megan Rhyne, Virginia Coalition for Open Government executive director, said neither officer safety nor open communications are more important than the other and both are legitimate concerns.

She said the main question is: “what has changed in the past few decades that makes this necessary now?”

In Shenandoah County, Director of Emergency Communications Jason Malloy said that none of the county’s or town’s police radios are encrypted. He said, however, the communications center has proposed a new system. If the county approves the purchase, certain law enforcement channels would be encrypted.

Malloy did not say what type of communications would be encrypted because those are “operational details I’m not at liberty to release.” He also did not offer a reason why encryption would be beneficial because that is “operational information for security purpose that I’m not comfortable releasing.”

Frederick County Sheriff Lenny Millholland said none of the county’s communications are encrypted, but in an ideal world, they would be for officer safety.

“In the way of the world right now, you don’t want other people hearing what you’re doing or where you’re responding,” he said.

McEathron said encryption also prevents “life-changing” information from being transmitted on public airwaves. Sheriff’s Office Maj. Mike Arnold noted such situations would include suicide or rape, which can include descriptive communications.  

“It isn’t that you try to hide anything. Does the public have the right to know that you’re responding to somebody’s house where there’s a terrible situation?” McEathron said.

Magalis agreed and said, “victims of crimes don’t need to have their identities broadcast to everybody on the planet.”

Arnold said encryption is “one of those things that you love and hate.” He said that the media is the main party that frames encryption in a negative light.

“I mean, you guys like to know what we’re doing. But unfortunately, you just can’t hear it,” he said.

McEathron noted that people do not have the right to hear police communications and the only reason they do now is because it is public.

“I mean, they have the right to know certain things, but all of the stuff we put over the radio, they don’t have the right to know. It just happens to get out because we have to talk,” he said.

Magalis agreed, adding that it is not a matter of trying “to hide the ball” and the department is “all about transparency.”

“But at the same time, some of these things have got to be kept under wraps in order to keep the officers safe so that they can keep the public safe,” he said.

Magalis noted that the Freedom of Information Act “exists for a reason.”

“People are certainly welcome to F.O.I.A. anything they want, and there are certain exemptions for that. That’s the law of the land. We have to be as transparent as we can while still maintaining public safety,” he said.