DC police decision jeopardizes interoperability

October 3rd, 2011

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                Interoperability Compromised in our Nation’s Capital.

Public safety officials in the Washington, D.C. area are concerned that the Metropolitan Police Department’s recent decision to encrypt its radios will hamper attempts to have seamless interoperability in the region. Encryption has long been used by militaries and governments to facilitate secret communication. Encryption is now commonly used in protecting information within many kinds of civilian systems. Police Chief Cathy Lanier has responded by indicating that it was an “officer safety issue” and that was the compelling reason for the encryption of radios. However, first responders in neighboring jurisdictions are now without seamless interoperability. In other words, it is more difficult for bordering law enforcement officers to talk to their counterparts in D.C. during an emergency that may involve several jurisdictions. One senior public safety official indicated that the District’s decision to encrypt its radios “puts interoperability back 10 years”.

After Al-Qaeda attacked our nation and killed more than 3,000 people, the 9/11 commission concluded America’s number one vulnerability during the attacks was the lack of interoperability communications. In fact, during my tenure as Public Safety Director in Prince George’s County, I spoke to several first responders who were concerned that their efforts to respond and assist at the Pentagon after the attacks were hampered by the lack of interoperability with neighboring jurisdictions. Many jurisdictions in the national capital region, with the exception of Prince George’s County, upgraded their radios shortly after the attacks so they could communicate with one another. It took several years and approximately 70 million dollars to upgrade the radio system in Prince George’s County. The new system went live in the spring of 2011, ending the county’s decade-long label as the hole in the donut for interoperability in the region. Now that upgrade appears pointless.

D.C. Police have indicated that providing the surrounding jurisdictions with the encryption code will resolve the interoperability problem. However, upgrading radios with the encryption codes is not that easy. It would cost Prince George’s County 6.5 million dollars to upgrade the system in order to resume interoperability with the District. The other jurisdictions would also be forced to identify monies to upgrade their radios and as we know, public monies have been scarce during this recession. The timing of the District’s decision could not have come at a worse time. The 9/11 commission just released its 10-year report card on the “Attacks of 9/11” and again interoperability received a failing grade. Don’t get me wrong, as a retired police officer, I am an advocate of officer safety. However, police scanners are not a new phenomenon, they have been in existence for more than 30 years and it is true that some of the “bad guys” use them to outmaneuver the police. But there are other channels available to police departments that are secure and allow officers to communicate in privacy without the need for encryption. I just have a difficult time understanding why radio encryption could not have been done simultaneously with the rest of the region to avoid interruption with interoperability. Collaboration and communication is critical in our war on terror.

Members of the news media have also voiced concerns over the recent decision to encrypt D.C. radios. Apparently, members of the local media will no longer be allowed to monitor activities of the police. The media argues that its ability to report on incidents in a timely manner allows the public to remain engaged in current events and provides fresh information to authorities regarding the incident or possible suspects. I used to be one of those public safety officials who believed the media played little or no role in the safety of the public or in solving crimes. That perception changed later in my police career and was solidified after the attacks of 9/11. If we are to win the war on terror, it will be won with the assistance of everyone, especially the media. Getting information out to the public in an expeditious manner can only be done with the assistance of the media. Most media outlets understand the importance of not reporting sensitive information once authorities have made the request for them not to do so. Social networking which has been embraced and embellished by the media is a critical component in our efforts to prevent or detect a future attack. We all play a critical role in the safety of our country and any digression from our ability to communicate across jurisdictional lines or keep the public engaged is truly a step in the wrong direction.

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