TOPEKA, Kan. -- Shawnee County could get a new 911 emergency radio system that allows responders to switch between encrypted and public traffic.
But the only thing that would stop an officer -- or an entire agency -- from blocking radio traffic all the time is a departmental policy, Topeka Police Chief Ron Miller said Thursday.
"There's no requirement that (emergency traffic) be public unless there's a policy," he said. "We (currently) choose to make it public, but many departments encrypt all traffic."
He said he didn't have an opinion yet on whether complete encryption would be in the best interest of the county.
"While I believe that the public does have an interest in listening to some radio communications, there are times when the law enforcement sensitivity outweighs the needs of the public to hear that communication," Miller said. "I see the need for both paths. I think that both capabilities are important and in the public interest."
Shawnee County has been considering for about a year replacing its 15-year-old 911 radio system, which would be used by all law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency medical responders within the county. The Shawnee County Emergency Communications Management Board was formed to assist in the selection of a provider for the new system, which is expected to cost several millions of dollars.
Both companies bidding for the contract - Motorola and Cassidian - are offering encryptions. Encrypting information converts the data into a format not easily understood by unauthorized people. Translating that information often requires a digital key, making it more difficult for people to hack into systems.
Encrypting communications would effectively block the public and media from hearing emergency scanner traffic.
Miller described encryption as an "important feature" for the new radio system because it is more secure than the department's current means of communicating sensitive information.
Currently, officers who want to share "law enforcement-sensitive information" - such as victim information and specific details of suspects - can use cellphones or other communication paths, he said.
The department has a policy regarding that traffic, he said, and supervisors continually listen to radio traffic, partly to ensure compliance with that policy.
Miller said he wasn't aware of any policy violations.
Should the county decide to allow both secure and public radio traffic, he said, nothing would really change for his department.
Shawnee County Sheriff Herman Jones said Thursday he didn't see encryption being used in everyday operations - only those high-risk or violent situations that present a threat to public safety.
He said he wanted the public and media to know law enforcement considers them partners and doesn't have anything to hide by encrypting its emergency radio system.
"John Q. Public is not the bad guy," Jones said. "The media is not the bad guy. I want to emphasize that."