Police silence radio scanners, cite safety over transparency


(NewsNation) — Police departments across the country are flipping the switch, silencing radio scanners that officers use to communicate crucial information in emergency situations and how so-called scanner hawks listen in.

It’s a move that prevents law-abiding citizens from monitoring crime in their communities. But it also stops the bad guys from tracking police. As crime numbers surge across the country, law enforcement says it’s an effort to protect victims and police.

The crackling sound of police scanners transmit vital information between officers and emergency response teams in cities all over the country.

Dozens of towns that once offered unrestricted access to police communications are now pulling the plug. They are making the switch to encrypted radio systems and with it, cutting off the public’s ability to listen in.

Thousands of times a day scanners relay sensitive information to emergency workers — everything from social security numbers and addresses to victims’ names and witnesses’ phone numbers.

It is information that, when publicized, could put everyone involved in a crime at serious risk.

According to police, encrypting scanners is a way to control that information and protect personal data, which often includes that of children, from being transmitted over the airwaves.

Louisville police switched to a 15-minute encrypted radio delay earlier this year.

“With an alarming rise in active shooter incidents across the nation, LMPD recognized the need to convert its radio communications to a system with enhanced security capabilities,” Louisville police said. “LMPD believes this transition is essential, as the department’s current radio communications platform compromises the safety of officers and the people they are attempting to protect.”

Many disagree, including the American Civil Liberties Union, who says the public has a right to hear how police respond to calls.

Encrypting radio traffic gives police the opportunity to edit pertinent content from the audio transmission, and the lack of trust between police and some communities is already fragile.

“I think encrypting and blocking and delaying the release of that material just raises sort of questions about basic transparency, from, you know, an agency in the police,” Ed Yohnka with the ACLU said. “That often suffers from a lack of transparency to begin with.”

In Chicago, a city that has seen a nearly 40% increase in overall crime this year, scanners will be fully encrypted by 2023. Additionally, scanner transmissions will be made available on a 30-minute delay.

The change will slow access to information to a community of people who listen to the scanners and share the information on social media

Chicago street pastor Donovan Price says he listens to the scanners in his role as a victim’s advocate.

“Listening to the scanner, actually, I kind of say let’s save my life to a certain degree or kept me from being shot,” Price said.

Rushing to the scene of shootings to aid victims, Price offers support to family members. On one occasion tuning in also saved him from the line of fire on Chicago’s streets.

“The shooter actually swung back to the first scene I was at, and shot again,” he said. “And I probably would have been at that shooting simply if I had not been listening to the scanner.”

Scanner encryption is nothing new. Other major cities have already moved to fully encrypted digital radio channels, including Denver; San Francisco; Louisville, Las Vegas and San Diego.

New York, with the country’s largest police department, is also considering the move.

The cities cite safety, not secrecy, as the reason for the switch.

For full disclosure, journalists across the country use police scanners on a daily basis. It’s how they follow breaking news and provide real-time updates to stories as the information comes in.

Many newsrooms will also have to adjust to the change.

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