Encrypted Police Radios Put Mount Prospect to the Public Information Test, and the Village Failed

EDITORIAL: The information and opinions that follow are NOT intended to criticize any individual police officer or public information officer that responded to incidents in Mount Prospect yesterday, but the information is intended to take a critical look at how the communications system our police chiefs have chosen in the northwest suburbs might put the public in jeopardy, and may have opened our communities and society to a slippery slope that doesn’t look anything like democracy. Any lack of thorough, careful attention to details of a communications system and real world application is a hardship on police officers as well as the public.

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.
— Abraham Lincoln

Here’s what happened yesterday, and here is why the Village of Mount Prospect failed, while police did an excellent job working for the safety of students and staff at Prospect High School.

Yesterday, about 9:30 a.m. someone discovered what the Village of Mount Prospect calls a “device” at Prospect High School. The discovery prompted a soft lockdown at Prospect High School and an email alert to parents that described no details about what caused the soft lockdown.

Mount Prospect police responded with lights and sirens, but their response details in real time are now a secret in real time because they use a military grade encrypted radio channel to dispatch their every day police calls and incidents. The official Mount Prospect police Twitter account did not mention the incident until 3:00 p.m. when it referred to an official notice on the Village of Mount Prospect website. The notice on the website does NOT indicate that it is from the police department, it is indicated that it is from the Village of Mount Prospect — more on that later.

With school shooting incidents like the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut and over 40 other school-related shootings in the United States since February 5, 2010; many parents had reason to be worried. Some parents worried whether the incident was connected to a train-pedestrian incident about 90 minutes earlier — the point is, they were not aware what was happening.

Several parents expressed outrage that District 214 would sent out a message about the lockdown, but that the message did not have any details about the incident.

Early in the incident, a few students tweeted about the lockdown, but they also had no information about what was happening. How frightening might that be to know you’re stuck in a classroom with a soft lock down, but you’re not told any details about what is happening?

Police on the scene were very open to parents and citizens that asked questions, but the public notification system is seriously deficient without open communications of every day non-encrypted police dispatch communications.

At 3:00 p.m. the Village of Mount Prospect published information about the incident. The Village of Mount Prospect “revealed” that a “suspicious device” was discovered. From that information, we don’t know if the suspected “device” was cautioned because it might have been a chemical bomb in a bottle, a suspicious backpack or suitcase, or a pressure cooker filled with shrapnel (the type of device used at the Boston Marathon bombing) or something else. The lack of details about the Prospect High School incident certainly would have stimulated at least some fuzzy recall in parent’s minds of these harmful items from past nationwide news accounts.

Perhaps most interesting is that the notice doesn’t come from the police department, or the police chief or the police department’s public information officer. The notice comes from the Village of Mount Prospect. The notice from the Village of Mount Prospect doesn’t come from any named official — not the mayor, not the village manager. Absolutely no name is associated with the notice, so no person has to take responsibility for the accuracy of the message. Additionally, a tweet referring to the website notice has no message, only a link. There is no indicator on the Mount Prospect Police Department Twitter account that flags the attention about the Prospect High School suspicious incident. The message could easily be ignored as a routine government business notice. Additionally with only a link, the tweet is troublesome for some cell phone users that might not be able to follow the link for technical reasons or because of mobile Internet speed deficiencies. The whole purpose of Twitter is to get out quick, effective messages that can also be read on a mobile device.

The website notice reports that law enforcement officials and Mount Prospect police officers determined that the device (singular emphasized) was part of a classroom extra-credit experiment, and that “the suspicious device” was rendered safe and later determined to have posed no threat. However, several items were shot by police with a weapon that appeared to be a pellet gun rifle. Still no description of what the device was, and why other items were also destroyed. Presumably, the other items were either litter or other similar devices that were left carelessly on the lawn by the science students. But without police communications being heard, we can’t be certain that the information released is the whole truth, especially when it is so limited in content.

Los Angeles Fire Department provides citizens with real time awareness public safety incidents in their city. Below are two tweets provided by LAFD when a speeding car drove through a crowd in August 2013, killing one person. The first tweet from LAFD was transmitted within minutes of the incident. An update was transmitted on Twitter about 40 minutes after the incident occurred.

The Twitter time stamp is two hours later than the actual time of the message.

An update was transmitted about 40 minutes after the incident by the Los Angeles Fire Department on the LAFD ALERT blog and the LAFD Twitter account. LAFD reported 12 patients were injured — two with critical injuries, two with serious injuries and eight with minor injury. “All believed
to have been pedestrians on Boardwalk; No entrapment; Several already enroute to hospitals; Investigation = LAPD West Traffic; NFD (No Further Details) – Brian Humphrey###”

LAFD tweet with update of the incident when multiple victims were injured when a blue Dodge Avenger was driven into a crowd on Venice Beach at Dudley Avenue in Los Angeles.

Five hours is too long to receive information about a public safety incident that affects thousands of people, but it is plenty of time for government agencies to filter a news release carefully for their perceived safety of the community, and protection of their own selfish interests, or the selfish interests of an influencer.

Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.
— Abraham Lincoln

Police departments and police officers in this area are among the best when it comes to professionalism, but when police know that every day citizens are not listening to their every day communications, and that there are no checks and balances to their communications and actions; the door is open for dishonesty, withholding information, laziness, inappropriate influence from businesses (or politicians or school district officials), and lack of accountability. We’re not saying that any of this is happening now, but the encrypted police radio, and the resulting missing pieces, and lack of awareness of the general public introduces our society to the opportunity of these nasty factors in government.

We don’t know …
How much did Prospect High School officials influence the information that is released to the public?

Did the student responsible for the incident actually have malicious intent? Is he or she somehow related to an official and being protected from prosecution?

Is a teacher somehow responsible for lack of management of safety procedures, and/or lack of supervision?

Was the soft lockdown an appropriate response? Did someone over-react in ordering the soft lockdown?

If the “device(s)” were later determined to pose no threat, why aren’t the contents or details of the devices(s) described? If the experiment was designed to determine the affect of sunlight on the pH of lemon juice or some other non-threatening science, why not let the public know?

Mount Prospect police were busy yesterday morning. After a fatal train-pedestrian incident, police were assigned to the possible threat at Prospect High School. It doesn’t take many simultaneous incidents to overburden the Public Information Office of any police department (and many police departments don’t even have a public information office). If any coordinated attack occurred on our community, no police department with or without a public information office, is equipped to get vital information out that could save lives, provide optimal functioning of the local economy and business activities, prevent over-worrying for ultimately non-threatening events, or provide awareness of the precise geographic location of threats. Public safety information for major incidents is enhanced by real time awareness of calamities or terrorist acts by media and the public monitoring of public safety communications.

Police radio encryption, according to some experts, is not designed to be used for community-wide everyday police communications. In fact such use, is believed by some experts to actually decrease its effectiveness of secure communications and decrease officer safety as police officers may communicate sensitive messages believing the messages are secure when actually the messages are not secure. Secret police radio encryption is designed to be effective for small group tactical teams, such as SWAT and narcotics teams.

“Local and live is the only truth in media during a catastrophe.”
— Michelle Rosen (daughter of murdered Tylenol/cyanide victim Mary “Lynn” Reiner)

Looking back at the Prospect High School incident yesterday, what if the incident involved harmful intent? We should ask ourselves the following questions.

If there were harmful devices placed in multiple locations in Mount Prospect or in Arlington Heights, would citizens have the opportunity to be aware of those suspicious devices in real time before those additional devices caused more harm? (People listening to police communications on smartphone apps or a police scanner could be aware in real time of potentially suspicious devices and call 9-1-1 to report a sighting, but that’s impossible in communities with secret police radio encryption).

Had the event actually involved malicious harmful intent, how long would it take to get a description of a fleeing offender or offenders out to the public? (People listening to police communications on smartphone apps or a police scanner could be aware in real time of a fleeing subject and call 9-1-1 to report a sighting, but that’s impossible in communities with secret police radio encryption).

Would the public have been aware in real time if there were a fleeing armed offender or offenders? Would lack of awareness in real time endanger people?

Would opportunity be missed to apprehend a fleeing offender (intent on creating further harm) because suspect descriptions are now secret (from the eyes and ears of the public) because of encrypted police radio communications?

Are people at risk of being harmed because they can’t take real time actions to protect themselves because police have eliminated real time awareness of threats by closing off their communications system to the public and the media? (Some proponents of encrypted police communication cite police officer safety as the reason for using encryption, but what about our safety — the public’s safety? Let’s face it, police officers face far greater danger every day, just standing in traffic while participating in traffic stops.)

Could terrorists actually learn to take advantage of communities that lack real time awareness of public safety communications because of secret encrypted police radio communications.

If there were casualties, would excruciating delays of information be experienced by family members and friends of victims and potential victims.

Are people being unnecessarily worried by events because of lack of information or delayed information?

Are local economies being negatively affected because of non-specific information and delayed information during a public safety incident?

Do we really want to depend on breaking news from the first tweet or Facebook post that may be inaccurate, exaggerated or maliciously-generated to cause more harm?

VIDEO: Local law enforcement officers from Mount Prospect, Arlington Heights, and Cook County Bomb Squad were on the scene while suspicious devices or bottles were destroyed on the Prospect High School campus on the east side of the high school building.

Concerned parents received an email that Prospect High School was under a soft lockdown this morning, but the email didn’t say anything about what caused the precaution of putting the school under soft lock down.

Early yesterday morning, a suspicious device was discovered outside on the east side of Prospect High School’s campus. As a precaution, Prospect High School initiated a soft lockdown and contacted the Mount Prospect Police Department. Based on the initial assessment of the device, the Mount Prospect Police requested the Cook County Sheriff’s Office Bomb Squad respond to the scene. The Cook County Bomb Squad rendered the suspicious device safe and later determined the item posed no threat.

The Village of Mount Prospect official website reports that law enforcement officials later determined the device was part of a classroom extra-credit science experiment after Mount Prospect Police officers located a second device in a vehicle in the school parking lot. The second device provided key indicators it did not pose a threat to the school community or the students. An interview with the owner of the car revealed the item to be an extra credit assignment. Based on the makeup of the second device, law enforcement officials determined it posed no threat to students or staff.

The police department and high school’s response followed established protocols designed to ensure the safety of the students and staff. Law enforcement and administrators from District 214 coordinated the response to this incident with the safety and security of the students as the primary concerns.

Arlington Heights police provided mutual aid assistance to Mount Prospect Police Department. The soft lock down was canceled by 11:00 a.m.

Cardinal Note: As of June 5, 2013 — up to and including the date of this article — police incidents related to the above police agency are not reported in real time or within a prompt time period. Police protecting their realm of investigation and police activity, have chosen to use encrypted radios to withhold their police communications, which were previously open to the public and news media via monitoring of public safety scanning radios — with no known negative results locally.

The delayed knowledge or entirely blacked out knowledge resulting from encrypted police communications may protect certain police operations and investigations, but it also puts the public at risk in situations such as when armed and dangerous offenders are at large and when other similar situations occur. In other cases, the delayed or blacked out information inhibits or prohibits the possibility of the public providing early witness accounts before a criminal trail goes cold. Citizens are much more likely to recognize or recall suspicious or criminal activity if they are aware of the criminal incident within minutes or hours of its occurrence. The most serious incident involving dire results would be a trail that is allowed to go cold in the case of child abduction.

The lack of real time information from public police dispatch also weakens an effective neighborhood watch program mostly working to prevent property loss, but also working to prevent possible violent crimes.

Police have alternate ways to transmit tactical, operational or investigative information, while still keeping their main public dispatch channels open for the best balance of public safety and police safety.

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