Campbell police join digital dispatch system with encryption option

By Sarah Lehr

slehr@vindy.com

CAMPBELL

The Campbell Police DEPARTMENT’S shift to a new digital dispatch system could save lives, according to Mike Romeo, a tech-support consultant and auxiliary canine handler for the department.

The city began looking into overhauling its system after a series of dispatch outages during inclement weather early this year. During the outages, Campbell police used Struthers dispatch as a back-up.

“From my perspective, the No. 1 issue is safety,” Romeo said. “Your lifeline, your backup is your radio in law enforcement. They need to know that when they key that radio up, it’s going to work.”

Romeo advised earlier this year that necessary repairs to the city’s existing analog system would cost at least $100,000. City leaders decided instead to invest in a new system that they viewed as having longer-term value.

The city spent about $104,710 for a base station and Motorola radios. Every officer will carry a handheld radio and the city will install radios in cruisers. Because Campbell Municipal Court Judge Patrick Cunning agreed to donate $50,000 from a fund under his discretion, a bailiff and parole officer will also carry radios so that the courtroom will be hooked up to the system.

The new radios provide a clearer signal. Additionally, an outage is unlikely, Romeo said, because the radios operate via a trunk system used by Mahoning County, Austintown, Boardman and Mill Creek MetroParks Police.

The Campbell Police Department hopes to fully implement the new radios by the end of next week.

Among other capabilities, the radios include a switch to activate encryption. Encryption prevents others from listening to the scanner chatter via radios, computers or smartphones. Local media outlets regularly listen to police scanners for potential breaking news.

“We do want to promote transparency,” Romeo said. “At the same time, a lot of people who are looking to commit crimes are listening to the scanner to try and stay ahead of the police.”

Acting Campbell Police Chief Lt. Kevin Sferra said the department has not created an encryption policy, but that police will “probably” encrypt all activity to deter criminals who listen to dispatch. Another option would be for the department to turn on encryption only for sensitive operations such as drug busts or sharing Social-Security information.

“In this day and age, with heightened concerns about officer safety, I do understand why police would want to encrypt,” Campbell Law Director Brian Macala said. “By the same token, I understand the media’s concern about the right to know when things are going on, and I never want to see the media restricted. It’s a difficult balance and, to be completely honest, I’m not sure exactly where the balance should be.”

The Ohio Attorney General’s Office has not issued any formal opinions on dispatch encryption. However, representatives from the office have said that real-time dispatch communication likely does not meet the definition of a public record, unlike a recording of a 911 call which is a public record.

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