Miami-Dade police will temporarily stop using a new digitally encrypted radio transmission system after officers complained of garbled conversations and a slight delay in an emergency button used when cops are in trouble.
Police will continue to use the radios, but will drop the encrypted code on the 3-week-old Harris Corp. hand-held devices and radio transmission system that cost upwards of $25 million to install.
The controversial encrypted system — which will partially block out many media outlets that have for years used it to get a jump on reaching crime scenes — was installed to deter criminals in dangerous situations from monitoring police movement.
“There is a concern for officer safety,” Miami-Dade police Det. Alvaro Zabaleta said. “A hostage taker can follow what’s going on. You’re giving them the upper hand.”
During the first three weeks the system has been online, police mostly in the south end of the county have complained of robot-like echoes during conversations. There’s also been a problem with the transmission of a signal from a small emergency red button on top of the cell phone-like device that police can press when they are in trouble.
Zabaleta said the delay on the emergency signal has been no more than a second or two, which can be significant because “it’s our lifeline.” He expects it will take at least a week to repair.
The new system has already processed more than one million calls. The problems gain added significance because there are only six police departments in Miami-Dade that don’t use the county’s system for dispatch and 911 calls.
Police union president John Rivera, recognizing it’s a new system with kinks, said communication breakdowns among officers can cost lives.
“I’m never going to be satisfied with a system that is 90 percent adequate, because 100 percent of officer’s lives are at stake,” Rivera said.
The flaws are enough of a concern that police Director J.D. Patterson issued a statement Thursday saying police would go back to the old unencrypted system on Tuesday, as tech experts from Harris Corp. try to determine what caused the flaws.
“A number of radio users have reported incidents of hearing distorted audio and other anamolies that have affected radio communications,” Patterson wrote in a memo to his 2,600 troops. Most of the short four-paragraph memo goes to explain the technicalities of what an officer should do if he or she is experiencing problems.
Media outlets in South Florida have expressed concern over the new digitial system because it limits their ability to monitor police work. Before the new system was installed, it was relatively easy to listen to dispatch calls and follow them from the police department’s headquarters to substations such as Kendall or in the north end.
The new system only allows listeners to hear the original call to headquarters. Police use the system to handle about 90 million calls a year. So far, the problems haven’t caused any significant problems or injuries to officers, police said.