My parents back in Lake County have had a police scanner on in their living room for decades. They listen mostly for police calls to their rental properties.
If my folks lived in Sioux Falls or Rapid City, they’d lose the pleasure of listening in on law enforcement this month. Starting November 13, the SFPD, RCPD, Minnehaha County Sheriff’s Office, and the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office will start encrypting their radio signals, blocking public access to police communications:
“This decision was not made lightly,” [SFPD Chief Jon] Thum said. “What it really comes down to is an officer safety issue and a victim protection issue.”
According to Hedrick, law enforcement has encountered criminals listening to radio traffic during crimes and adjusting their actions based on what they learn.
“The public has an expectation that if they call the police, we’re going to track down the suspects and apprehend them, and this job is difficult when the bad guy can listen to our playbook on their cellphone,” [RCPD Chief Don] Hedrick said [Shalom Baer Gee, “Public to Lose Access to Law Enforcement Radio Traffic in Pennington, Minnehaha Counties,” Rapid City Journal, 2023.11.03].
South Dakota journalists say they are losing a vital source of information about police activities. Megan Raposa of SF Simplified tweets, “My first job in journalism involved listening to the police scanner near-constantly. So much public safety news came from doing that. An already dark state in terms of public records just got even darker.” The newly rebranded South Dakota NewsMedia Association tweets that it is “Unfortunate to see this abrupt loss of public access to emergency response radio traffic in Minnehaha/Pennington counties. Wished authorities would have given more notice or provided for public input into this decision. More than only news media have concerns here.”
The national Radio Television Digital News Association shares these concerns and has been sounding the alarm about the acceleration of police radio encryption all year:
Police departments across the country are encrypting their radio scanner communications with an increased and frightening urgency. Though encryption is not a new issue, it is rapidly accelerating with police departments in New York and Chicago duplicating efforts that are already in place in California, Colorado and more. These encryption policies look different from department to department — with some opting for a delayed release of information, others decrypting for media personnel, and many choosing to encrypt communications entirely.
Regardless of the approach, the consequences of encryption prevent the public from accessing information about the activities of police in real-time. These communications provide individuals and newsrooms with essential updates on issues happening in their communities such as violent crime, hazardous conditions or officer-involved shootings. The move to encrypt police scanner communications puts the public – and the newsrooms that serve them by seeking and reporting the truth – at risk.
We do not want to jeopardize officer safety or listen to private medical information about identifiable individuals on police scanners. We, like police departments across America, want to keep our communities safe and informed, but encrypting police communications has the opposite effect – harming government transparency and impeding the public’s access to information [Dan Shelley, president/CEO of RTDNA, “Why Radio Encryption Is RTDNA’s Biggest Issue in 2023,” RTDNA, 2023.01.11].
Chief Hedrick and Pennington County Sheriff Brian Mueller assure us they’ll do extra work to fill in the public information gaps created by silencing the public scanners:
Hedrick said Twitter — now X — has been a quick way to get information out to the public regarding incidents in progress, and the department will continue to inform people in that manner. However, law enforcement will have to focus on being more engaged with the public.
“I think our daily information that we push out, we’re going to have to be more engaged,” Hedrick said.
Mueller echoed that sentiment.
“I agree with Chief Hedrick that our supervisors out there on the street that are working need to have a good understanding of what the community needs to know and understand to keep them safe when we’re responding to a call for service, and we’ll continue to find ways to be more innovative with that,” he said [Baer Gee, 2023.11.03].
Journalists, rental property owners, and other citizens interested in keeping tabs on police activities and threats to public safety should contact their legislators and ask for a transparency bill to clarify that police communications are public records. But given the Noem Administration’s dramatic clamp-down on releasing information to the public and general loathing of journalists, it seems unlikely any transparency proposals will gain much traction in Pierre.