Last week's terrorist attacks in Brussels have police in the U.S. reviewing their own preparedness, especially for the threat of multiple, coordinated attacks.
One question that often comes up is radio communications. In America, unlike Europe, most police radio chatter is on open frequencies.
During the Dec. 2 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., for instance, the general public was able to follow the drama of the manhunt by listening to police radio communications that were being streamed online.
"Our radio traffic was playing out real time across the nation," said San Bernardino police lieutenant Mike Madden during a recent legislative hearing about the attack. "It was being broadcast live ... for all to hear, including potential suspects who are now being made aware of what law enforcement actions are."
It's not a new complaint. During the multiday manhunt following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, police became so worried about the public listening to their movements that they asked that their radio stream be taken down from Broadcastify.com, a website that streams radio communications from about 5,700 emergency services. The company complied, though CEO Lindsay Blanton calls it a "pretty extraordinary circumstance."
"Other than that, agencies understand that what we do is legal, and there's not much pushback," Blanton says.
Some police agencies have decided to encrypt their radio transmissions, but Blanton says it's hardly a rush. Every year a few more agencies turn on encryption, he says, but he estimates it's still only about 10 to 15 percent of law enforcement agencies in the U.S. that have "gone silent."
Encryption costs money, especially when it means buying new radios, which can cost thousands of dollars per unit. There's also a technical challenge in figuring out "interoperability" — how to stay in touch with other departments and agencies, especially if they're using different systems.
Jim Bueermann, a former police chief who now heads up the Police Foundation, says he almost never encountered a situation in which open radio communications put him in danger or compromised the work during his three decades as a police officer. He says officers already have more secure ways of sharing sensitive information — cellphones and group texts — and he thinks there's value in keeping a police department's broader communications out in the open.
"People who are generally supportive of the police want to listen to what's going on, and it gives them a sense of what officers are involved in," he says. During the San Bernardino terrorist attack, he said he was one of the people listening to the radio chatter. "You could hear the stress in the officers' voices, and it just gave you a much better appreciation for what they were going through."
Bueermann notes that at one point, the terrorism suspects' home address in nearby Redlands, Calif., was read out over the radio. If anything was going to compromise the police operation, he says, that information would have. But it didn't.
"I don't think we've seen at this point the kind of sophistication at the terrorist level where listening to the radio traffic would have made that much difference," he says.
A future terrorist attack in the U.S. might exploit the open radio communications of the police, but he says that possibility has to be weighed against what he sees as the importance of maintaining transparency in how police do their jobs.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
When police talk about how prepared they are for complicated attacks, one question that always comes up is radio communications. Unlike in Europe, most police radio chatter is public in this country. NPR's Martin Kaste reports some officers think that's a problem.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: In Europe, police communications go out over restricted frequencies, or they're encrypted. But here in the U.S., things are generally more open.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: One suspect so far - male in black clothing. He's still firing rounds.
KASTE: This is from the terror attack in San Bernardino last December. The two suspects had shot up a holiday party, and as the manhunt developed, you could follow the drama playing out over police radio.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: One suspect fled in a black SUV westbound from the location. We do not...
LIEUTENANT MIKE MADDEN: And our radio traffic was playing out real time across the nation.
KASTE: That's San Bernardino Police Lieutenant Mike Madden, one of the first officers on the scene. At a recent hearing about lessons learned from the attack, he singled out what he sees as the strategic risk of open-radio communications.
MADDEN: It was being broadcast live on YouTube for all to hear, including potential suspects who are now being made aware of what law enforcement actions are. That's an extremely precarious position for first responders of an incident of this magnitude to be put in.
KASTE: It's the Internet that's changed things. It used to be you needed a police scanner to hear this stuff, and it was mainly reporters and hobbyists who bothered to get the right equipment. But now hundreds of hobbyists are putting local police chatter online, and those streams are consolidated on a website called Broadcastify. Lindsay Blanton is the CEO.
LINDSAY BLANTON: We have about 5,700 public safety streams online at any given time.
KASTE: People can even listen in via a smartphone app. Blanton says more than 200,000 people listened in during San Bernardino, a record for his company. And he says he rarely hears from police departments because they know that this kind of streaming is perfectly legal.
BLANTON: There's not much pushback. You know, certainly we've heard through the grapevine that there are some agencies, especially agencies that tend to operate a little more secretly than others, that they don't like what we do. The flipside of that is, there are a lot of agencies that see value in what we do, and they actually actively participate on our platform.
KASTE: Blanton guesses that 10 to 15 percent of American police radio traffic is now encrypted or otherwise unavailable. There's usually a spike in interest in encryption following high-profile incidents such as the Boston bombing, but that interest fades when departments look at the cost of switching to a new system. Jim Bueermann is a retired police chief and head of the Police Foundation.
JIM BUEERMANN: Police radio systems that are available are ruggedized, and they are very expensive. They're very sophisticated, but they are really expensive. The portable radios that officers wear on their belts are now approaching about $4,000 apiece.
KASTE: And there are technical challenges, too. One you encrypt, you have to think through compatibility with neighboring agencies and jurisdictions. Who gets to talk to whom, and when? Beermann says departments often end up just getting encryption for the more sensitive units, such as narcotics teams, and leaving the more general conversations out in the open, and he thinks that's a good thing.
BUEERMANN: I think there's tremendous transparency and confidence-building attributes to having an open radio system where people who are generally supportive of the police want to listen to what's going on. And it gives them a sense of what officers are involved in.
KASTE: But he admits it's a real decision that society has to make, whether this kind of transparency is worth it compared to the possibility that a terrorist attack may someday take advantage of the openness of American police radios. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.