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Critics worry Billings 911 dispatch encryption harms police transparency

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Posted at 8:35 AM, Nov 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-15 10:35:21-05

BILLINGS — 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. The city of Billing 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 with 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.

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Chief Rich St. John of Billings Police Department

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, the executive 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.

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Jeff Roberts

“It’s also a really important tool for holding law enforcement agencies accountable when something happens that raises a lot of questions,” said Roberts.

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.