NewsMontana and Regional News


Billings 911 dispatch will begin encrypting law enforcement radio traffic

Police radio traffic no longer publicly broadcast
Posted at 9:36 AM, Nov 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-14 20:25:40-05

Whether you’re a journalist or a scanner junkie, police scanners are a go-to tool. Starting Tuesday, you won’t hear much from these devices in and around Billings, as the city will begin encrypting all city law enforcement radio communications.

“We now have the ability to encrypt radio traffic going from the dispatchers and to the officers,” said Chief Rich St. John of Billings Police Department.

The public will no longer be able to listen to radio traffic between the police department and the Yellowstone County Emergency Communications Center.

St. John said maintaining the safety of his officers was a huge factor.

“We have found that you have a criminal element, whether it’s a scanner or various applications out there, that were monitoring our operations, monitoring the arrival, the departure, and the deployment of officers, which is terribly unsafe,” St. John said.

But the move comes at a time when many are calling for law enforcement to improve their transparency.

“It’s removing a tool that journalists have been using for decades to keep the public informed and it just makes it harder for them to do their jobs,” said Jeff Roberts, director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

Roberts saw the impact firsthand when police departments in Denver and Aurora started encrypting their radio communications.

“The news organization is then totally reliant on the police to tweet something, to put out a news release, to tell them about incidents in a timely manner,” Roberts said.

Roberts says encrypted radio communications can affect police accountability: “It’s also a really important tool for holding law enforcement agencies accountable when something happens that raises a lot of questions.”

But St. John sees it differently.

“Confidential information was being picked up either by scanners and then shared by social media. At the end of the day, we are responsible for that information,” St. John said.

While this is a first for Montana, St. John said encrypted scanners are already the norm in many other cities across the country. He promises transparency won’t be a problem.

“What we have pledged to do, we continue to make our announcements via Twitter and social media and to increase that on things that are of lesser importance if you will,” said St. John.

Here is the full text of the news release:

The City of Billings/Yellowstone County Emergency Communications Center will begin encrypting all City law enforcement radio communications for the safety of officers and security of sensitive information.

This change, set to take place on Nov. 15, 2022, means any Billings Police Department communication usually heard via scanner, will no longer be publicly broadcast.

This decision was made with careful consideration, legal review, and extensive research.

Radio communications almost always contain confidential, sensitive, and personal identification information that’s protected by the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA), along with Criminal Justice Information laws.

“It is critical for law enforcement to have as much information as possible when responding to a call. It assures safety and appropriateness. Right now, scanners are broadcasting personal information the public is not authorized to know, and we are responsible for the security of that information,” explained Billings Police Chief Rich St. John.

This information, along with the safety of first responders and operations, are put at risk by a local scanner audience that shares sensitive information on social media.

In other situations, officers have encountered individuals with scanner apps who are using the information to aid in a crime.

“Encryption protects the public as well. Citizens may not report crime for fear a criminal with a scanner will pinpoint their location and seek revenge. Encryption eliminates that factor,” said Chief St. John.

Social media’s use to share radio traffic has led to sizeable audiences and gatherings at law enforcement incidents. As a result, additional law enforcement is needed for crowd control, scene integrity protection, exercising proper criminal procedure, and public safety.

Reallocating officers to a scene for those reasons reduces the number of law enforcement available to respond to other emergency calls, thereby creating longer response and wait times.

Encryption of radio communications is a trend seen in other cities for similar reasons.

To encrypt radio communications, the 911 Center would activate existing technology at no additional cost.

“Offering filtered encryption for the public would be labor intensive and require time and manpower to carry out. A delayed radio feed would allow law enforcement to get a head start before the information goes public, but it still doesn’t solve the problem of protecting personal information,” said Derek Yeager, director of the City/County Emergency Communications Center.

The encryption will not interfere with recordings and interoperable communications between city, county, state, and federal law enforcement agencies.

This change does not obstruct the City’s commitment to transparency.

All calls are recorded and available through public information requests.

“Not being able to listen to dispatched calls does not impact officer accountability. Body and in-car cameras are in use, and the complaint process remains the same,” said Chief St. John.

In addition, the Billings Police Department will continue sending press releases, and share timely and relevant information on large-scale incidents with the public via Twitter.