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Johnson County police scanners will soon go silent. What will that mean for transparency?

Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3

More than a dozen law enforcement agencies — from Overland Park to Prairie Village — will be encrypting their primary channels so listeners can't hear what police and dispatchers are saying over the air.

For 13 Johnson County police agencies and hundreds of listeners to police radio scanners and phone apps, Jan. 23 will be “Encryption Day.”

Law enforcement officials see it as the day they take back control over how much of their operations — including sensitive private information on the people they encounter — will go out over airwaves to be noted by anyone with the right technology.

Scanner listeners, including some local crime journalists, see it differently.

To them, “Encryption Day” will be the day the lights dim over police transparency, the day their desktop scanners become expensive paperweights and phone apps all but useless in finding out what’s going in real time with local law enforcement.

“Once encryption happens, there is no expectation of accountability to the public about any agency’s action. At least not in any meaningful way,” wrote Cartherine Kost, administrator of the Johnson County KS Community and Police Scanner Group, in an email to the Post.

“The public has the right to know what is happening in their communities. We have the right to have oversight of our governmental affairs. Encryption is one less way that we as citizens will be able to observe agencies and demand accountability,” she added.

Which police departments are encrypting radio calls?

Encryption — which blocks listeners from hearing what police and dispatchers say over the radio — is nothing new.

Most local agencies already use some encryption on certain tactical channels. The primary channels on which initial calls go out, however, have remained audible for members of the general public to hear if they have scanners.

That’s what’s about to change.

Lenexa’s police department recently announced over the social media platform X (formerly Twitter) that 13 agencies will begin encrypting their primary channels.

Those agencies include Blue Valley School District Police, Shawnee Mission School District Police, and the city police departments of Olathe, Overland Park, Shawnee, Lenexa, Leawood, Merriam, Fairway, Prairie Village, Roeland Park, Mission and Westwood.

The Johnson County Sheriff’s office and Kansas Highway Patrol communications will not be encrypted.

“This policy will help protect the privacy of those individuals, including victims, witnesses, and suspects, whose personal information is transmitted over a police radio,” Lenexa Police wrote on X.

Inside a Kansas City, Kansas Police Department squad car.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Inside a Kansas City, Kansas Police Department squad car.

A brief history of encryption

Listening in on police activities dates all the way back to the 1920s, when police communications existed alongside radio stations, and in at least one city, police played “Yankee Doodle” before their calls because of entertainment requirements from the Federal Radio Commission.

Tech evolved after that. Police adopted short-wave, but people still listened. The CB radio craze of the 1970s drew in another generation of listeners who turned to scanners of the day, many of whom were undeterred by the prospect of having to buy a separate crystal for each channel.

Tech evolved again, with the development of smartphone scanner apps that in more recent years has made listening easier and more accessible.

Then came the summer of 2020, the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the Black Lives Matter protests and the intensified scrutiny of police operations.

Scanners were reportedly used in some instances to alert protesting crowds to police attempts to hem them in, according to online publication Gizmodo.

Police cite concerns about too much information

Police now list several concerns about scanners that they believe validate the decision to encrypt their communications.

High on that list is the idea that criminals use scanners to keep track of and evade police — a concept scanning group leaders push back hard against.

Lenexa Police Chief Dawn Layman said there have been times that unmarked police cars have attempted to get close enough to use a grappler — a sort of tire lasso — to stop a suspect’s car, only to have the target car suddenly speed up. She believes that was due to scanner descriptions of what was going on.

Agency heads have also been uncomfortable with personal information, exact addresses, mental health references and other information about callers and witnesses going out onto the airwaves.

Overland Park Interim Police Chief Simon Happer put it this way during a presentation to the city council’s Public Safety Committee meeting earlier this month: “A lot of things groups think are important, I don’t know that they are. Is the fact that my next door neighbors had a disturbance between each other really a matter of public need to know?”

A policy enacted a year ago by the FBI Criminal Justice Information Services gave the move toward encryption a final push, by requiring agencies to encrypt a range of biometric and other data by the time of their next audit. That policy only solidified a decision that had already been made in Lenexa, Layman said.

In other cities in the metro, the new policy makes little difference.

Independence, Missouri, for instance, was one of the first departments to encrypt all its channels in 2013 and others, including Kansas City, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri, have also done it, Happer said.

Scanning community worries about ‘bad information’

School buses line up on 127th Street and Black Bob Road following a shooting at Olathe East High School on Friday, March 4, 2022.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
School buses line up on 127th Street and Black Bob Road following a shooting at Olathe East High School on Friday, March 4, 2022.

Police officials say they have worked hard to balance the public’s right to know with information that, if made public, could damage their operations.

They point to current efforts toward transparency, such as call logs on their websites that give basic real time information on initial dispatch calls and say the normal communications provided through public information officers or talking to officers at the scene is still there.

Scanner enthusiasts, though, predict big downsides to the coming encryption, including more confusion over what is happening which can lead to a lack of trust between police and the public.

“When there is a lack of reliable information available, there is no shortage of people who will send bad information out on the rumor mills, sometimes maliciously,” writes Kost from the Johnson County scanner community group on Facebook. “One only has to browse the NextDoor app and you can see incorrect information in abundance. And incorrect information leads to incorrect assumptions and incorrect actions.”

Brett Cooper, who broadcast scanner traffic on the websiteBroadcastify in the 2010s and later set up the restricted channel ScanJoco, echoed that sentiment.

“One of the things that worries me is when you get people guessing and throwing out random answers, it leads to rumors and conspiracy theories,” he said. “ People can get really curious and be driving up to a hot scene and it would be really bad for those people not to be in the know.”

Concerns about trust and transparency

Another danger is that police departments will have too much decision-making power over what the public knows, thereby eroding public trust, scanner advocates said.

“We are only going to hear the information that agencies want us to hear. And in Johnson County, this is an issue,” Kost wrote.

Although she said she doesn’t believe the county has a “bad cop” problem, there will be temptations to edit the news.

“I think that Johnson County will use encryption as a way to hide the crime and other relevant incidents from public view,” Kost wrote. “They are eager to maintain those ‘best City to Raise Kids’ and ‘Best Counties to Live In’ awards that they like to show off.”

There are differing views on the role of civilian scanner enthusiasts.

At times, scanning listeners have been characterized as nosy busybodies looking for gossip about their neighbors. Happer said the public doesn’t need to know every police call that goes out.

“It’s not really anybody’s business what happened at my next door neighbor’s house,” unless it was a serious crime, he said at the Overland Park committee meeting this month.

Councilmember Jeff Cox took it further.

“There’s a massive gap between people who want information and people who need information,” he said, adding the police department should be the ones to decide, “not some guy on NextDoor with a scanner in his basement. Let’s face it, a whole bunch of people whining about this just want it for entertainment,” or to commercialize it as a media scoop, Cox said.

In fact, some scanner listeners say they are filling a journalistic role by answering questions when people hear sirens for calls that may never reach the prime-time news reports.

Kost, the administrator of the 42,000-member Johnson County KS Community and Police Scanner Group, said her group has provided timely information on traffic, road conditions and crashes, as well as events like the school shooting at Olathe East High in 2022.

During that incident, she said, the group was able to provide up-to-date information on where parents could go to be reunited with their children and to quash inaccurate rumors.

She also worries that police decisions to leave out certain crimes like domestic disturbances or drunk driving will be “swept under the rug” when they involve high-profile residents.

Practicality of workarounds is debated

Lenexa Police
Johnson County Post
Lenexa Police

The Lenexa department’s media contact, Master Police Officer Danny Chavez, suggested curious scanner listeners and residents can still go to the scene and then call the police department media spokespeople to find out what happened.

“It’s just they won’t have access to hearing it in real time on the scanner. But in terms of transparency, here it is: If you’re interested, you can go stand on the sidewalk, record the officers,” and perhaps question the police information officer or submit an open records request, he said.

The scanning community is small enough that Chavez and Layman said they did not expect a flood of information requests.

Mike Frizzell, a scanning enthusiast and freelance journalist who frequently files stories for the Johnson County Post, said he often sees onlookers standing on the sidewalk watching when a police search is going on.

“With everything encrypted, nobody will know,” what’s happening, Frizzell said. “We’ll all be standing on the sidewalk looking.”

As a journalist, Frizzell said most of the police work-around suggestions are impractical.

The call logs, for instance, would require him to constantly watch a laptop with multiple tabs open for each city.

“My scanner goes with me everywhere,” he said. “When it makes a certain noise, I know I need to pay attention to it. I can’t have 10 tabs open, refreshing them every 10 minutes. It would drive a person crazy.”

Other times, the logs may not reflect a serious situation that needs to be reported on, he said.

Frizzell showed how Shawnee Police’s call log in December made no mention of an armed standoff in which the equivalent of a SWAT team was called out. In that case, a man was charged with attempted capital murder.

Frizzell said he gets a lot of inquiries when people hear sirens, and the scanner helps him know which ones are worth pursuing.

“I can’t chase every single one of those. I’ll be bankrupt just from buying gas,” he said.

Frizzell added that if the situation merits, he prefers going to a scene, where officers and their supervisors recognize him and may answer his questions.

In minor incidents, police might be long gone in the amount of time it takes to drive to the scene, he explained.

Calling is still an option, but “at the same time, if there is something major going on, I don’t want to be tying up the dispatcher with my little questions that are insignificant when someone’s potentially getting shot at.”

Recruitment could suffer, scan enthusiasts say

Many police-scanning enthusiasts have been skeptical of the reasons departments say they need to encrypt.

They say they have asked local authorities for specific examples to prove criminals are using scanners to evade the law. Cooper said he has never been contacted by law enforcement officers with concerns about ScanJoCo or Broadcastify.

Several in the scanning community said police can avoid airing sensitive data by using the encrypted channels they already have. But police say that’s unworkable for them.

“We cannot just ask people to switch to another channel,” said Layman, as she held up a police radio. “If I’m wearing this and my focus is down the street on something and we’re in the heat of the moment and somebody says switch to Tac Channel 4, I shouldn’t be taking my eyes off that to look at my radio to figure out what channel I’m on.”

Some scanners also said encryption will hurt police recruitment.

Patrick Norris, a scanning listener who lives in Independence, where police radio is already encrypted, said encryption there has already closed a window into the law enforcement world for young people looking for a career.

That’s a fair point, said Frizzell, who started a degree in justice administration after years listening to the scanner growing up. He said he often encounters young people on calls who are interested in policing as a career.

In Independence, encryption has already had a detrimental effect, Norris said.

“You are a little bit more involved in the community when you’re listening to it,” he said. “But when you don’t know what’s going on in your town, then you’re just left with, ‘I want to be safe.’ Or ‘What happened?’ And you never hear anything.”

This story was originally published by the Johnson County Post.

Roxie Hammill is a freelance journalist in Kansas City. Contact her at roxieham@gmail.com.
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