Technology Marches On

Denver PD is transitioning to encrypted radios. This means that the scanner freaks and press will no longer be able to monitor radio traffic. The press will get access, if they sign a contract with the police department.

The are valid reasons for encrypting police radio transmissions. Operational security comes to mind. As a news source, police radio transmissions serve as a pointer. They alert the press that something is going on at a certain location. Those same transmissions are worthless as to building a narrative.

In a critical incident, police transmissions serve to confuse rather than enlighten. Each transmission represents a request for information, a report from one particular vantage point, or the movement of assets. None of this gives a full or accurate picture of what is actually happening. Wait for the report.

To put this into a context, the reader can understand. The public is invited to the barbecue, help yourself to the sausage. They are not invited to watch how the sausage gets made.

I will miss the scanner freaks. They were so much fun to mess with. Two oldies but goodies.

In one city where I worked, the mayor and his wife were devoted scanner freaks. They had scanners installed in the kitchen, den and bedroom. The scanners ran 24/7. I knew this.

I kept a list of license plates belonging to local shakers and movers. Most were culled from cars parked in the city hall parking lot on the nights that the city council met.

About two in the morning I would “check out” at the local adult bookstore. Sometimes to mix things up I would check out at the local “lovers lane”. I would then consult my list and request a registration check on one or two of the license plates on the list. Dispatch would respond with a return. That is a description of the vehicle and the identification of the registered owner. I would then check back into service. It wasn’t my fault if the scanner freaks concluded that the shakers and movers were habituating the adult bookstore or lover’s lane at two in the morning.

Years later I was assigned to a narcotics task force. A bread and butter operation was the buy bust. This is where an undercover officer would arrange to buy dope from a dealer. The undercover wore a “wire”, a radio transmitter, so that we could monitor the transaction. At the conclusion of the transaction, the undercover officer would give a verbal bust signal, “It looks like good shit.” We would then move in and arrest the crook.

The wire had a limited range. It also transmitted on a “back channel” common to most of the small police agencies in the area. The reader can consult FCC rules or George Carlin’s routine on words that cannot be broadcast. I’d go with Carlin. Good is acceptable. Shit is not.

One Monday, the boss stormed into the daily briefing and announced that he had received a complaint. We were using profanity on the radio. He was shocked! During his tirade he identified the source of the complaint. It was a Lieutenant from a department that was not a participant in the task force. The boss returned this office so that he didn’t have to listen to a bunch of pissed off narcs.

As the supervisor, I gave them their marching orders. Enforcement activity would be limited to only buy busts. These buy busts had to occur within sight of the city limits where the complaint originated. Looks like “good shit,” was not an acceptable bust signal. However, motherfucking good shit was okay. Soon we were doing two or three buy busts a day.

On the following Thursday, the Chief of the offending agency called to apologize. The complaining Lieutenant had been chastised. Could we let bygones be bygones?

I don’t have a problem with the public’s right to be informed. However, nobody’s interests are being served when incorrect, incomplete and uninformed speculation takes the place of proven facts. Take a look at the reporting of a fast breaking incident as it unfolds. Now compare it to reporting of the same incident twenty-four hours later. It’s almost like reporters are describing two unrelated incidents.

Encrypting police radio transmissions is not a First Amendment issue.