Police want privacy

Clovis Police Officer Christopher Lopez programs the encrypting device on his portable radio Thursday at the Clovis Police Department. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Police scanners lodged in Clovis kitchens and living rooms may soon be junk pile fodder.

Almost all Clovis Police Department transmissions will be encrypted beginning next week, according to CPD officials.

The department contends the communications curtain will shield officers from meddling family members and criminals who use scanners to keep track of their movements.

“Basically, this is for officer safety,” said Clovis Police Chief Bill Carey. “We’ve had people hear that their kids or loved ones were being stopped by the police, and then the whole family shows up. Officers have problems controlling a scene like that.”

Carey also said, “In every drug search we do, we find a scanner.”

Police dispatchers will have the ability to control which calls are scrambled with the touch of a button, said Lt. James Schoeffel, CPD public information officer. For officers, the department purchased 143 scramblers — small chips tucked inside hand-held and portable police radios, officials said.

The scramblers were purchased with state-allocated grant money from the Office of Homeland Security, said Clovis and Curry County Emergency Management Director Ken De Los Santos, who sought the funding.

Since 1999, the county has received more than $2 million in Homeland Security funds. The stash is reserved for purchasing a specific arsenal of products, including protective gear, communications equipment and equipment for handling hazardous material, De Los Santos said.

Items purchased with the money should “enhance homeland security and emergency operations planning,” said Branda Napper, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Although the bulk of Clovis police communications will be scrambled, communication from ambulance units, the Fire Department and the Sheriff’s Department won’t be, according to officials. The move has Curry County Sheriff Roger Hatcher feeling left out in the cold.

“If we could afford (scramblers), we would have them,” Hatcher said.

More concerning than lack of funds, he said, is that the police encryption system could hamper joint operations between the two law enforcement agencies. Hatcher said the departments work together daily. But with police communications garbled, age-old cooperation faces a major hurdle.

“Officers on the street will not be able to hear what is going on at the police department,” Hatcher said. “It could be bad for us, but it could be a whole lot worse for them. My deputies may not be able to understand an officer’s call for help. He could essentially be around the corner, and we would not know he needs assistance.”

Uniformity among law enforcement agencies is what Hatcher wants, not eradication of the encryption program.

“The private citizen,” Hatcher said, “doesn’t have any business listening to the (police) radio and interfering, which is essentially what has happened.”

“That is what we want to avoid,” Hatcher said.