Manchester, NH- A SWAT raid that left local reporters in the dark for several days indicates that providing transparency and timely information to the residents of Manchester is appearing to become difficult for the city’s police department.
Last Friday, a SWAT raid was conducted at a home on Lake Avenue. The raid resulted in police arresting a drug suspect who they say had six grams of cocaine, five grams of heroin, and three Tramadol pills.
Reporters seeking information about the mid-day raid had to wait three days for a statement from police. Manchester Police Captain Maureen Tessier said that “new policies” regarding providing updated information to reporters were yet to be finalized.
The Manchester Police Department began encrypting all of its radio transmissions on September 9 after purchasing a new $5.8 million Motorola APX7000L radio system, removing the ability for the public to access the transmissions through a scanner or app. Once the public took notice and began asking questions, the department issued a statement on September 14 outlining their reasons behind the decision.
The department first explained that their previous system had become “obsolete,” but went on to say that they had switched to encryption for the purpose of protecting privacy of minors, crime victims and police officers. “When we transmit a medical call, a criminal check, a juvenile or adult name that may be a victim to a crime, that information and identity should be protected,” the statement read.
The statement went on to say that “The use of the ‘coded’ system allows our officers to respond to events and call in their locations without the concern of some people following our officers around and some even interfering with the officers’ duties. Given the national narrative regarding police officers and the attacks on them, this was an important factor in our decision.”
In response to questions regarding transparency, the department simply said: “Some of the concerns that have been brought forward involve the transparency of our agency and what the public is not able to hear with scanner or phone applications. We can assure you that our decision had absolutely nothing to do with trying to hide any type of nefarious activity.”
Alderman Joseph Kelly Levasseur was unsuccessful in attempting to reverse the encryption decision. He told the Union Leader that he had received a large number of calls from concerned residents about the issue.
Carla Gericke, a Manchester resident and candidate for state senate, organized a rally on October 4 to alert the public about the department’s use of encryption. “Open, honest and transparent policing can not come from actions like encrypting all police communications without any prior public discussion,” Gericke said in a prepared statement for the rally. “Public access to information transmitted by police radios is a longstanding, healthy tradition, and to unilaterally make these communications encrypted, while increasing the use of military tactics and equipment on the streets of our city is unacceptable.”
The trend of radio encryption is certainly not new, as various police departments across the United States have used this measure before Manchester. Many police departments have made similar claims of wanting to protect sensitive information about both potential victims and officers. However, the logistics of encryption have room for improvement. In some cases encryption has led to communication issues among public safety departments, a consequence that can put the public in danger. In Mansfield, Massachusetts, police ceased using encryption because it obstructed their ability to communicate with agencies from nearby towns. After a fatal train malfunction in Washington, D.C., in which firefighters using encryption were unable to communicate with supervisors, the city stopped the use of encryption within the fire department.
While they do not condemn the practice, New Hampshire’s state police do not share the same desire for full encryption. There are no current plans at the agency to make the switch, as they reserve the ability to selectively encrypt communication.
Gericke explained to LFD News‘ Annabelle Bamforth that during a “shelter-in-place” order enforced on the city in May when police were searching for a suspect who allegedly had shot two officers, listening to police radio was the virtually the only method to stay informed during the ordeal. “When the unconstitutional lockdown of West Manchester happened in May, the only way residents knew what was going on was by listening to the police radios,” said Gericke. “Those that did knew the lockdown was lifted around 10:30 a.m. Those that didn’t had to wait until Chief Willard and the AG’s office held a press conference at 4 p.m, eleven hours after the suspect had been apprehended.”
Manchester’s decision to use encryption has led to a gap in oversight, as well as a new need for alternative methods so that the public may receive important information in a timely manner. “The MPD decided, without any public input, to encrypt all police radio communications. This means a wholesale blackout of information to residents and journalists, the people who are supposed to hold them accountable,” said Gericke.
Mark Roy, who serves on the city’s Police Commission, told the Union Leader that Chief Nick Willard “is doing a great job of getting the right policies into place.” What those policies will actually mean for journalists and the citizens of Manchester is still unknown.