Lancaster County police chiefs want to encrypt radio transmissions

LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa. -- Police chiefs in Lancaster County want to encrypt radio transmissions. They say safety is their utmost priority, and in doing so, would increase safety countywide.  A spokesman for the Lancaster County Chiefs of Police says they have to protect officers whereabouts and victims identities; however, before encryption can happen, the county commissioners have to approve it.
It's a move meant to protect law enforcement and victims, according to Chief Mark Pugliese of West Hempfield Township Police.
"Anybody wants to try and take a random shot, there's 12 officers gathered that are kind of sitting ducks. Reporters that are kind of embedded in the community have showed up at scenes before EMS have gotten there, before backup officers have gotten there."
Chief Pugliese is the chair of the police advisory board for Lancaster County Communications. He says unanimously, across the county, chiefs of police support encrypting the system. He says encryption would protect victims identities and also protect officers - citing the recent Virginia shooting as an example.
"We can't prepare for everything, okay, but we can try to increase our odds," he said.
It's a move the Lancaster County Commissioners would have to approve. 2 of the 3 commissioners would need to vote yes to blocking the radio system. Right now, Commissioner Craig Lehman would vote no.
"The most likely scenario for an ambush, and this is all about officer safety, is making a fake 9-1-1 call, and unfortunately encryption isn't going to prevent that from occurring," said Commissioner Lehman.
He says he could be moved if police compromised and offered radios to the media, keeping the current transparency.
"My other concern is that this could further isolate police and impact the trust the police have with the community," said Lehman.
However, Commissioner Joshua Parsons supports it.
"When I have all of the chiefs of police in the county request we do something and say it's an officer safety issue, as a former prosecutor, that certainly means a lot to me, and I think we have to take that very seriously," said Commissioner Parsons.
A media law counselor says a completely closed system hinders public safety.

"It's obviously problematic for the media who need timely access to keep the public accurately informed. It doesn't recognize that the media has been working hand in hand with these systems and first responders for decades about incidents," said Melissa Melewsky, Media Law Counsel, with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.

County commissioners and police departments in Lancaster County want your feedback before they vote. That vote is expected to take place at the next commissioner meeting set for a week from today.