Clark County encrypts police radio channels

Other agencies could follow

Scanner hobbyist Rick Hansen holds his scanner/Ham radio device at his home Saturday, Nov. 19, 2011, in Silver Spring, Md. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

VANCOUVER, Wash. (KOIN) – This week the dispatch agency for Clark County completed its transition from an analog-based radio system to an all-digital network that allows for radio encryption on certain radio frequencies.

As of June 14, all law enforcement radio transmissions in Clark County are encrypted. That means, even with a digital scanner, members of the public and media will not be able to monitor law enforcement dispatch channels. It is common practice, across the country, to encrypt radio frequencies for SWAT teams, detectives and other channels in which personal information is shared.

Radio channels for Clark County fire agencies and ambulance services are not encrypted; however, the public can only listen to those using digital scanners.

In an undated letter obtained by KOIN 6 News La Center Police Chief Marc Denney, the chairperson of the Law Enforcement Council of Clark and Skamania Counties, wrote “Our decision to [encrypt police radio channels] is in response to advancing technology that allows more people to monitor law enforcement movements and police incidents with greater accuracy and speed than ever before. Criminal suspects have been found using smartphone applications to monitor police responses to their crimes.”

Officials confirmed members of the media were not specifically notified of the decision to encrypt law enforcement channels. As a result, most media outlets in Portland are without the ability to monitor law enforcement dispatch channels in Clark County, even with digital scanners. KOIN 6 News and other media are working with CRESA, the dispatch agency in Clark County, to receive access to an encryption key that would allow dispatch-center purchased radios to receive law enforcement dispatch channels.

The Columbian Newspaper already has an agreement in place with CRESA.

“To allow interested individuals to continue to monitor police incidents, CRESA has created an incident map that can be accessed via the CRESA webpage. Incidents will be posted and displayed in near real-time with a built-in delay,” Denney wrote in his letter.

The transition to digital in Clark County was a three year project aimed at increasing the reliability of the radio system and Interoperable communications. For several years, some radio transmissions, especially in more rural parts of the county, were marred by static. The new system, the “Project 25,” (P25 system) is a national standard for digital radio communications.

Interoperable communications refers to the ability of emergency responders to communicate seamlessly with other agencies and/or systems without special effort.

The State of Oregon is near completion on it  700  MHz  P25  trunked  radio  system. It will cover a large horseshoe-shaped area  which  includes  the  Willamette  Valley,  the  Columbia River from Portland to Arlington, and Central Oregon from the Columbia River down into Klamath County.

The City of Portland switched over to its 700 MHz P25 trunked radio system several months ago for public safety bureaus, including police and fire. The full completion date for the entire city, including parking bureaus and parks and recreation, is still several years out.

Currently in Portland, the old analog system is being “simulcast” so members of the public can still monitor public safety frequencies using non-digital scanners.

All primary dispatch channels for the Portland Police Bureau and Portland Fire Bureau remain unencrypted. City records obtained by KOIN 6 News show that PPB has more than 10 designated talk group channels that are encrypted. Those channels are typically used for detectives, drug officers, specialty units, including the Traffic Division, and Emergency Operations Center, which is activated during large protests.

The Gresham Police Department and Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office both have tactical radio channels encrypted but their primary dispatch channel is open to the public.

TriMet was one of the first agencies in the metro to complete its switch to a 700 MHz P25 system.

Washington County, Clackamas County and the City of Salem are still in the testing phases of their 800 MHz P25 systems. Decisions on talk group encryption in Washington County, Clackamas County and the City of Salem have not been determined.

The Woodburn Police Department and Eugene Police Departments appears to be the only law enforcement agency in Oregon that has fully encrypted all of its radio channels.EPD gives media access to their radio channels, Woodburn does not.