Police scanners go silent with encryption (2024)

RACINE — Area residents who listen to police scanner traffic may have noticed recently they’re unable to hear what is going on.

This spring, Racine Police Department radios began to transmit on digital channels, encrypted from the public, leaving public scanners silent.

Handheld scanners and scanner apps available on most smartphones are no longer able to receive transmissions, leaving the general public deaf to unfolding events.

The move to digital radios was not made to leave the public out of hearing Racine Police airwaves. It was a combination of reasons, said Sgt. Chad Melby, Racine Police Department’s public information officer.

Melby said there have been instances where wanted parties would be listening to the radio to have a head start on Police Department officers. Also the analog radios were not always reliable.

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“That, combined with the need of upgrades and the way everything is trending that we were going to have to go digital … I think that’s what prompted the switch,” Melby said.

Planning for the switch from air waves to digital transmission began in 2017, with money being budgeted aside in 2017 and 2018. In 2017, a “little over $600,000” was budgeted and in 2018 “a little over $900,000” was budgeted towards the project. In total, about $1.5 million was budgeted. Melby said that there is still work being done to finalize the transition, so he was unsure how much of the allotted money had been spent.

Melby said Racine’s is not the first area law-enforcement agency to make the switch to digital radios.

“Kenosha City, Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department, Milwaukee City and Burlington are all digital,” Melby said.

‘Off the air’

Frank LoMonte, director for The Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, said that police radios were over the air, like any other radio, just at a lower frequency. By going digital, LoMonte said it takes transmissions “off the air.”

“The idea of encryption is to take it off the air and to no longer have the signal available to be pulled out of the air by somebody who has a radio antenna and instead its digitally transmitted in the same way that a cell phone call is digitally transmitted — I can’t pull my neighbor’s cellphone calls out of the air using my radio,” LoMonte said.

Encrypting police department communication has come under fire by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. Bill Lueders of the WFIC said the council’s lawyers did not see any legal precedent against radio encryption, but Lueders also noted that it does make it harder for media and citizens to be aware of police happenings.

“Now more than ever, the police should be doing everything they can to make their processes more transparent, not less,” Leuders said. “Telling the public it can no longer listen to police calls does nothing to build trust."

In some cases, as with the Citizen app, the public uses information from police radios to stay informed on what is happening in their areas. Citizen employees monitor transmissions and post updates to a map for users.

Recode, a branch of Vox.com focused on the digital world, reported that the Citizen app, among other apps, has experienced a surge in downloads after George Floyd’s death and protests. Citizen, as of Thursday afternoon, was listed as No. 9 in top news apps in the iOS app store. Similarly, the top three paid news apps in the iOS app store were police scanner apps.

During protests in areas that lack encrypted channels, such as in Chicago, police experienced difficulties during transmissions. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that hackers interrupted that city’s police radio system during protests so “dispatchers struggled to answer calls during the looting and gun violence.” But, there have also been reports of the public helping law enforcement after listening to transmissions, such as the case of one California man helping police locate a shooting suspect.

Locally, on the Racine County News/Scanner Facebook page, page administrators post what they hear on the scanner. But it’s mostly medical and fire calls because people cannot listen to the police transmissions. It is still possible to listen to Racine Fire Department radios with a scanner, online or with an app.

Public records

To balance the safety of officers with transparency to the public, LaMonte suggested that police departments switch channels, as it “shouldn’t be an all or nothing” situation.

But switching between channels has also been cited to cause issues within police department communication. LaMonte pointed to recent events, as police are “under the microscope.”

“The right answer should always be more disclosure instead of less,” LaMonte said. “So, if it’s inconvenient for them to switch channels or use two different communication devices, that’s a shame, but I’m not sure inconvenience weighs very heavily right now.”

As lawyers for the WFIC found, LaMonte, who worked as a journalist and a lawyer before his role at the Brechner Center, said that police stations are within their rights to encrypt their radios. There are no First Amendment rights being abridged by the action, according to LaMonte.

But LaMonte also said that without access to scanners, concerned citizens and newsrooms alike are left in the dark. In the case of the hews media, there is a loss of access to breaking news coverage.

Melby acknowledged this: “I know for the media, it’s a headache because you have to hear through a citizen or you have to get ahold of me, which is not always the easiest thing,” Melby said. “But as far as transparency and things go, everything is recorded and available via open requests. It doesn’t help you with a scene that’s active, but if there’s questions as to how something happened, everything is still recorded as usual and available.”

Open-records requests, which are a part of the Public Records Law, allow for the request of public information from government agencies. Public records requests, LaMonte said, can take months to receive, which has been the case in some instances in Racine.

Without access to scanners, LaMonte said police officers should be allowed to speak more freely to the media, as it is common practice to limit media availability to a public information officer or public relations officer.

Restricting access to whom the media can talk at a police department is actually a constitutional problem, which becomes larger without access to the scanners. LaMonte pointed out news outlets then have to rely on “reconstructed” accounts through news releases.

“That is a legal problem,” LaMonte said. “If you can’t get access to news by way of the police scanner, you’d better be able to talk to the officers without having to wait a day for a press release.”


Police scanners go silent with encryption (1)


Police scanners go silent with encryption (2)



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  • Encryption
  • George Floyd
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  • Radio Encryption
  • Brechner Center For Freedom Of Information
  • Radio
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