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Transparency concerns arise as Charleston-area law enforcement encrypt radio calls

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Charleston County Consolidated 911 Center (copy) (copy)

The Charleston County Consolidated 911 Center as seen in September 2017. Provided

Charleston County law enforcement agencies completed a switch to fully encrypted radio communications this week, effectively blocking the public from hearing transmissions and prompting transparency concerns. 

For the past 18 months, agencies including the Charleston County Sheriff's Office and the Charleston, North Charleston, Mount Pleasant, Isle of Palms and Sullivan's Island police departments have been transitioning their communications to encrypted radio channels. 

Previously, anyone with a commercially available scanner could listen to officers' and deputies' communications as they responded to dispatch calls.

The switch was completed Wednesday, said Kelsey Barlow, a Charleston County spokeswoman. 

Authorities moved to encrypt radio communications because, "people with criminal intent have been listening into police transmissions via scanners and even smartphone (applications)," causing a public safety issue, said Shawn Smetana, a county spokesman. 

Encrypting sheriff's office communications cost $250,000, Smetana said. Nine Charleston County agencies split a $825,000 bill to secure their communications. 

The agencies will retain 46 non-encrypted channels used to communicate with law enforcement in adjacent counties, like Berkeley and Dorchester, for mutual aid incidents, the spokesman said. 

Charles Francis, a Charleston police spokesman, reaffirmed the department's commitment to transparency and public service. 

"Transparency is extremely important to Chief (Luther) Reynolds, city administration and to the Charleston Police Department," Francis said. "We’re asking people to trust us. We’re going to work as hard as ever to continue to build our relationship with the community, and that includes being transparent and honest with them."

But the move to secure law enforcement communications concerns Jay Bender, an attorney for the South Carolina Press Association and The Post and Courier.

Police scanners have long been a staple of how journalists track incidents ranging from shootings to fires, he said. 

But it's not just media who rely on scanners to stay informed, Bender said. 

"People have long used scanners to keep advised on what's going on with fire and police," he said. "Citizens have used it to know where there’s something to avoid."

And Bender said he is skeptical of authorities claims for needed security.

Prior to the encryption, law enforcement agencies had secure radio channels used for tactical operations and other sensitive communications, he said. 

"I don't know of any instance where bad guys used a scanner to ambush police or avoid police," Bender said. "I've seen it in movies. ... It's possible that it could be real but it's unlikely. I see this as just another step in the isolation of police from the communities they are to serve and protect."

Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

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