- Associated Press - Thursday, July 31, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - The Little Rock Police Department will block public access to most of its radio transmissions.

Starting Thursday night, day-to-day radio calls such as bank robberies and traffic accidents will no longer be available for the public to hear on police scanners or smartphone apps, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (http://bit.ly/1oPPJ6K ) reported.

Police said the encryption will scramble radio transmissions for people without a computer software encryption key, although conversations between police and other city departments will remain public.

City Manager Bruce Moore said the change was made for safety reasons to keep criminals from listening in. North Little Rock and Conway police already scramble their radio signals. The Little Rock Police Department is the largest in the state and handles roughly 500,000 calls a year.

Some organizations have criticized the move and city Board of Directors members said they have questions about it.

A department spokesman said the chief and assistant chief would not be available to answer questions until Friday.

Moore said encryption was always “on the table” as part of a $9 million overhaul of the city’s outdated emergency communication system that was one of a number of upgrades paid for with money from the sales tax voters passed in 2011.

Ward 5 City Director Lance Hines said he has received calls from people concerned that they won’t be able to hear police radio chatter anymore.

“It’s a delicate balance between keeping the officers safe and our … public’s right to know,” he said. “I think everyone’s scratching their heads going ‘How did we get from here to there?’ I think there’s a better solution than what we have right now.”

Hines said the Board of Directors may discuss the issue.

Department spokesman Lt. Sidney Allen said too many criminals have been able to avoid capture or ambush officers by using scanner applications on their phones, although those usually offer only the main dispatch channel and not others police might use.

“You don’t know how many have gotten away because they’ve gotten away,” Allen said.

Holly Dickson of the Arkansas Civil Liberties Union said the ACLU stands behind efforts to protect officers, but not at the expense of the public knowing what’s happening.

“Good policy and practice is to only use encryption when it’s needed instead of blanketing it so the public has no knowledge of what’s going on,” Dickson said. “The public’s inability to listen can, in some instances, inhibit public safety. Accurate information is better than speculation which is what we have when the public have no information. … Fear, rumors, speculation, imaginations will fill in.”

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