The Anchorage Police Department says a new online police scanner will better serve the public and leave officers less exposed during dangerous situations.
APD Chief Mark Mew said in an interview with Channel 2 that the department's new system will replace analog police transmissions effective Tuesday. The move is the latest offshoot of the Alaska Wide Area Radio Network (AWARN) project, an initiative providing police with radios capable of interacting with a network used by a variety of public safety agencies across the state.
Mew said the department’s conversion of radio scanners gained increased urgency with a Jan. 1 Federal Communications Commission requirement that 25-kilohertz radio networks, including public safety networks, must switch to narrow-band transmissions.
While the change does not affect the way officers communicate with one another, according to police, it will add a layer of security against people who may be listening to police communications.
The new system operates on a delay of a few minutes.
“That does a lot of things for us,” Mew said. “It allows us to talk to fire and troopers and different federal agencies, and so forth -- the kind of communications that people didn't have at Katrina or 9/11 some of those big disastrous events.”
The quality of the encrypted signal was a significant factor in making the move, Mew said.
“It's not like the old stuff that we used to have on the old analog side,” Mew said.
Police will have roughly a dozen channels under the new system, though the public will be able to hear only the same traffic recently available.
“We left two channels open for the public to listen to," Mew said. "For the last year you've been able to listen to only two: (the) north sector and south sector main dispatch channels.”
The evolution of scanners from cumbersome devices to smartphone apps has increased the likelihood of criminals monitoring police activities in sensitive tactical situations, Mew said.
He could not provide a specific example of this happening but said police have heard their operations unfold on handheld scanners carried by suspects.
“By the time we realize that we need to take something to a secure channel, we've often given up some of our options,” Mew said.
Another piece of the puzzle is the media, which was an influential factor on the encryption decision after a January incident in which fast online reporting by Channel 2 and other outlets turned the seizure of a BB gun from a Dimond High School student’s backpack into breaking news.
“We've got the five-minute buffer," Mew said. "We don't want to have a mistake occur and alert somebody in a situation like that, so that is part of our thinking.”
Some elements within APD have weighed in against websites and groups that monetize scanner traffic, placing audio copies of transmissions behind online paywalls, but Mew said those views did not play a role.
“I'm sure people have their opinions on it, their personal opinions, but on a policy level that isn't why we did it,” Mew said. “There's no constitutional right to listen to it (in real time.)”
While dispatchers will have the ability to censor calls from the system, Mew said he does not believe that will be used often because APD has other ways to confidentially contact officers via non-public scanner channels and sending messages to in-car computers.
Mew acknowledges that the decision to go encrypted has had a price tag but characterizes it as a small part of the much larger AWARN project.
“Encryption costs something, but it's a minor cost," Mew said. "I don't know how much it is per radio.”
APD’s main direct cost has been purchasing encryption licenses for Anchorage Fire Department radios, allowing AFD crews to continue reading APD radios in the field. He estimated the amount at a couple hundred thousand dollars.
"Just thinking about how to make the situation safer, raised this possibility in my mind: that this would give us an edge, or preserve an edge that we used to have that maybe is eroding,” Mew said.