Clark County Sheriff’s Office officials listening to citizens’ concerns regarding full encryption of law enforcement channels

I was taught growing up not to make it my business whatever was going on in my neighbor’s yard and that it shouldn’t be any of concern of my neighbor what was going on in my yard. I guess that’s the reason I never developed a “lookie-loo’’ mentality.

Ken Vance
Ken Vance

So, even though I have worked in the media industry for the past 30 years, I wasn’t up in arms when I heard about the decision that local law enforcement agencies were going to fully encrypt their radio channels. I’ve never owned a scanner and imagine I never will.

Also, unlike many of my journalist brethren, I’ve never believed that the public’s right to know should supercede matters of law enforcement or the military. I’ve always respected the fact that law enforcement officials and military personnel had such meaningful and dangerous jobs to do that they deserved the right to operate with whatever element of secrecy necessary for them to be successful and remain safe.

As I have become more and more informed during recent weeks about the issue of full encryption of law enforcement channels, I’ve gained a greater respect for those citizens who feel differently about this matter than I do. For the most part, I believe the members of our community who do spend large amounts of time glued to their scanners are for the most part doing so with the right intentions. They want to keep themselves informed and they want to help other members of the community to be informed as well.

Sheriff Chuck Atkins
Sheriff Chuck Atkins

“There may be 25,000 of those people in Clark County and they communicate, they keep in contact with each other,’’ said Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins, referring to the area citizens who actively and passionately belong to scanner groups.

With the assistance of his Undersheriff Mike Cooke, Atkins has reached out to those members of the community who are unhappy with the recent change by law enforcement and fire districts to full encryption. Atkins drafted a letter to the members of Save Our Scanner … Clark County, Wa., dated June 21, 2017.

“I want to let all of you know that Undersheriff Mike Cooke has been keeping me up to date on the information you have gathered and posted to your group, as well as your individual comments,’’ Atkins wrote. “The decision to fully encrypt our law enforcement channels was based on a consensus that the safety of our law enforcement officers would be best served by moving to full encryption.’’

Atkins reminded me in a recent conversation that the decision to move to full encryption wasn’t one made just by him or the Clark County Sheriff’s Office.

“It was a process that included CRESA (Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency), all of the city chiefs (of police), the Washington State Patrol, and the Sheriff’s Office,’’ Atkins said.

Atkins told me that he believes the encryption for law enforcement is “going well.’’ He said safety is a real factor for law enforcement officers in the decision to encrypt.

Atkins is a 36-year veteran of the Clark County Sheriff’s Office. He started his career as a patrol deputy before becoming a K9 handler. As he was promoted through the ranks, he spent time as a sergeant and commander to assistant chief of the enforcement branch. It was his time as the Gang Task Force sergeant and SWAT/Special Operations commander where he witnessed the most examples of criminals monitoring law enforcement transmissions, a practice that puts the lives of officers in danger.

“There were many, many times we would get into their homes and they were listening to the many channels we were using,’’ Atkins said. “There were many situations where somebody had just left prior to our arrival because of something they heard transmitted or one of their friends heard.

“Those people who are interested enough to pay that close of attention are the hardened criminals who we really want to get off the street,’’ Atkins said. “If it means one cop gets hurt going in because  they know we are there, then we have to take a closer look at the situation. The technology today is leaps and bounds ahead of us so if we don’t do some things they’re going to be listening to every one of our radio channels.’’

That said, Atkins is serious about attempting to address the concerns of the scanner community, which he addressed in his letter to the Save Our Scanner … Clark County, Wa. group.

“During the discussions leading up to the decision to fully encrypt, there was much discussion regarding transparency, media access, and the fact that large numbers of citizens monitor public safety communications for personal enjoyment as well as a desire to be an extra set of eyes and ears in the community,’’ Atkins wrote. “Undersheriff Cooke, who self-describes himself as a scanner enthusiast and Ham radio operator, was a proponent of keeping our main dispatch channels in the clear while encrypting our operational and tactical channels.

“Over the next several weeks I plan to do further research on the issue of full encryption versus partial encryption and to review how our implementation of full encryption has impacted the community,’’ Atkins wrote. “I am also concerned about any negative impacts on interoperability with our neighboring agencies, transparency with our citizens, and our ability to work with our news media in a responsible manner.’’

Ryan Todd has been an outspoken member of the Save Our Scanner … Clark County, Wa. group. He did not attend a recent meeting with members of his group with Undersheriff Cooke but the reports he received were positive.

“The meeting with Undersheriff Cooke sounded like it went really well,’’ Todd said. “He gave us a lot of good advice how to get information out there and some direction what can be done to address our concerns.’’

Todd said he has been involved in amateur radio for over 20 years.

“I consider myself a hobbyist,’’ Todd said. “In the beginning, we thought we didn’t want any encryption at all. But we’re kind of looking at it now as if our main issue is the encryption of the dispatch channels.

“We came to the conclusion as a group that there is a need for some channels to be encrypted,’’ Todd said. “It just makes good safety sense, good policing sense. But, to have the main (dispatch) channels for law enforcement encrypted doesn’t lend itself to the same security and safety that law enforcement thinks it creates. It does more harm than good.’’

Todd cited a reason decision by the Portland Police Department to only encrypt some channels.

“They switched over to digital not too long ago and they made the decision to only encrypt some channels, not their main channels,’’ Todd said. “To keep some channels open, it invites the public to relate better to local law enforcement.’’

The good news is that the Clark County Sheriff’s Office is addressing the concerns of citizens like Todd and in the coming weeks we likely will be able to report some changes to the current full encryption system.

“My commitment to all of you is to diligently listen to your concerns and to work collaboratively with the police chiefs, the staff at CRESA, and the CRESA board, in evaluating our decision to fully encrypt,’’ Atkins summarized in his letter to the Save Our Scanner … Clark County, Wa. members.

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About The Author

Ken Vance got his start in the newspaper industry in 1987 as a reporter at The Columbian Newspaper in Vancouver. Vance graduated from Stevenson High School in Stevenson, WA, and attended Clark College in Vancouver. He worked for The Columbian from 1987-2001. He was most recently a staff member of The Reflector Newspaper in Battle Ground, where he served as editor since 2010 and reporter since 2007. Vance’s work in the newspaper industry has won him multiple awards, including a first place award from the Society of Professional Journalists for in-depth reporting.

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