Baltimore Goes Dark: Police Scanner Encryption Creates New Danger

September 14, 2021 Topic: Crime Region: Americas Tags: BaltimoreCrimePoliceEncryptionDetectives

Baltimore Goes Dark: Police Scanner Encryption Creates New Danger

Police activity in Baltimore will soon be concealed by the shroud of an encrypted radio system. This new equipment will allow officers to work without worrying about whether a crafty criminal is listening to their security tactics. But it poses a security threat to hundreds of thousands of city residents by blinding them to the crimes happening around them.

During June, some officers were instructed to pick up new radios that would use a coding algorithm to conceal their various communications. A few of them were under the impression that encryption would go into effect on July 1. But the police department wasn’t prepared to move that quickly. The following month, on July 14, Sgt. McKinley Smith sent an email to some of the officers who did not have new radios informing them that the department would begin distributing them on July 19. “The current radio system will switch over to the new encrypted system at a designated time (TBD) all at once,” Smith said. “This means the entire BPD will be switched over at the same time. Due to this, each member will have 2 temporarily during the transition period.”

But months came and went and the designated time did not arrive. Instead, other atrocities did. There were more shootings. There was more violence. Then, on September 10, there was an anomaly. Police had spent two years responding to multiple reports of commercial breaking and entering crimes made by store owners and employees who had been robbed of their ATMs. Initially, the ATM thieves would show up overnight, pry open the door, and remove the machines. Over time, the culture surrounding the get-rich-quick crimes became more fluid, its perpetrators more brazen. In the months leading up to encryption, they begin boldly walking into convenience stores and removing the ATMs in front of store employees and customers, no longer caring who was around to witness their crimes. By late August, they had evolved their craft to include work vans and focused on 7-Eleven stores in Baltimore’s rich neighborhoods. On two separate occasions, they drove vans into those stores. One of them was in the center of Hampden and the other was in the heart of Fells Point. And just as the crime waves that had been crashing against the barriers of human security were starting to inflict unsurmountable damage, the police made an unusual discovery. On September 10, they found eleven gutted and discarded ATMs behind a vacant house in southwest Baltimore. Years of unsolved crimes had laid the bedrock for an ATM mass gravesite. 

In the end, after all the chaos, after a specialized unit of police officers committed corrupt crimes so scandalous that they spawned an HBO series, after a deadly pandemic had killed hundreds of Baltimore’s citizens, and after a buyout round gutted its local newspaper, there was encryption. It sat on the horizon like a dark cloud threatening to destroy a village. First, the dark days of information reduction would settle over the city creating a fog of danger so obscure that few people would notice it. Then, it would drown them in uncertainty. Those who resided in the posh neighborhoods would be at liberty to walk around oblivious to all the life-altering events that happened in the poor neighborhoods. They wouldn’t notice the struggle or strife associated with them unless those things somehow had an impact on their personal lives. After all, if there wasn’t a press statement about a crime and if reporters with access to the encrypted scanner were asleep when it occurred, then a large part of the city could move on as if it never happened because, in some ways, it never did. Under encryption, the freedom to live life blind in Baltimore would finally become another conquerable speed bump on the road toward improving the city’s image.

Congratulations. I’m sorry.

Maggie Ybarra is a senior editor at the National Interest.

Images: Maggie Ybarra; Reuters.