The Mesa Police Department began encrypting its radio traffic last month, ending the ability of people with radio scanners to hear officers’ chatter.
Sensitive, or “hot channels,” used by SWAT and tactical operations have been encrypted for over 10 years.
For the sake of transparency, police said, the department will still publish an unredacted feed of its radio traffic online on a one-hour delay.
The feed is available through links on the Mesa PD website or on the mobile app Broadcastify.
Sgt. Chuck Trapani said that residents who want to know about events happening near their homes in real time can call the department’s non-emergency number for updates.
He added that setting up the delayed feed on Broadcastify cost the department $23,071 and did not require Mesa City Council approval.
In announcing the encryption, the department cited citizen privacy, officer safety and protecting criminal investigations.
In the normal course of police business, names and addresses will go out over the airwaves, but these will still be in the delayed radio feed.
A growing number of police departments across the country are encrypting routine radio traffic, and Mesa PD said encryption of all radio traffic is becoming a standard best practice in law enforcement nationally.
Trapani said Mesa modeled its encryption program after the Las Vegas Police Department, which made the change in 2018.
One group of residents that will be impacted by the loss of live feeds are scanner enthusiasts and social media groups that share information about incidents happening in their community.
The East Valley Scanner group posts public safety updates on Facebook.
Group co-creator and ham radio enthusiast John J., who declined to give his last name, said the group has relied in part on scanner traffic for information, as well as other sources, such as tips from residents and contacts in the public safety community.
“Since Mesa PD recently fully switched encryption on, it does come as a shock, at least partially, to folks who like to monitor what’s going on,” he said.
He understands the reasons for encryption, but thinks it’s ultimately better to keep the live feed accessible.
“The big push for encryption is only 5 to 10 years old. Look at where we are at now: crime has been steadily rising over the last few years. … Being able to monitor scanner traffic enables citizens a way to fight back by being the eyes and ears for first responders,” John said.
Last year, Assistant Chief Ed Wessing also discussed radio encryption with the Mesa Tribune as a way to reduce the volume of “cop watchers” or “auditors” on scenes where they were creating challenges for officers.
Auditors are members of the public who film police activity ranging from minor traffic stops to felony warrants.
Some watchers post their videos of police activity to dedicated social media channels, where they may have thousands of subscribers.
Wessing told the Tribune last year the phenomenon was a growing trend.
Local watcher Christopher Ruff is convinced Mesa’s move to encryption is mostly about making it harder for “people like himself to film police activity.
“The reason they’re doing this with the scanners is because of us,” he said. “This is a total step in the opposite direction of transparency.”
Police are “tired of being on the internet, so they’re creating new tools to hinder or limit our ability to publicize them,” Ruff said.
Ruff has been filming police in Mesa and beyond for about a year-and-a-half and posts videos on his YouTube channel.
The growing use of encrypted channels by law enforcement “makes it more difficult for us to find (police),” Ruff said, but he said he finds plenty of activity by simply driving around town.
He’s also tipped off by police helicopters.
He considers himself a “guerilla journalist” who is doing a public service by rooting out abusive practices and individuals by exercising his First Amendment rights to stand in public rights-of-way and record.
Critics counter that auditors are trying to bait officers into losing their tempers in order to make videos go viral, which can translate into higher traffic and revenue.
Some auditors make it harder to judge their motives by taking a brash approach, walking close to active scenes and engaging with people being questioned, offering unsolicited advice about their rights, sometimes heckling law enforcement personnel.
Many of the interactions with police Ruff posts on his channel become adversarial, but some are friendly.
At times he’ll serve up insults and rude language to officers he’s filming, but he said he isn’t doing that for page views and revenue – he’s only dishing back what he’s receiving from officers.
“That’s my personality,” he said. “When I show up to a traffic stop, I’m me. …The times when I become rude, I know what I’m doing – the respect levels have gone out the window.”
Wessing told the Tribune last year that the number of video recorders the department was encountering on calls was reaching a “boiling point.”
He described a call last year involving a felony warrant where eight auditors showed up on the scene.
“We could (not) care less about (auditors’) videoing or posting videos – we all have video cameras on,” Wessing said. “What we are concerned about is interfering with safety operations – getting up to within a foot of officers. That is a huge safety concern.”
Trapani said that in the first month of the new encryption initiative, “there has been a decrease in the number of auditors showing up on scene,” though he didn’t have any numbers available.
But Trapani said that the main reason for the decision to encrypt their radios was officer safety – they don’t want to telegraph their movements to the “criminal element.”
He cited anecdotes of Mesa police officers arriving to addresses and hearing their radio traffic inside the house.
In addition to the growing practice of police radio encryption, cop watchers will also have a new state law to contend with that goes into effect in September.
House Bill 2319, signed by Gov. Doug Ducey in July, makes it a misdemeanor to film within 8 feet of “law enforcement activity,” defined by the law as questioning a suspicious person, making an arrest or handling an “emotionally disturbed or disorderly person.”
There are some exceptions, such as when the person filming is the one being questioned.
Ruff has been in that situation.
He said he’s been cited and found guilty on three charges in Mesa related to his police auditing activity, such as trespassing.
He said he’s appealing those cases.
Ruff said he’s on a crusade to make policing better and will not be deterred.
“Just to be clear, I’m not anti-police,” he said. “We’re anti-bad police.”