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Billings area 911 dispatch to begin encrypting law enforcement radio traffic

Police radio traffic no longer publicly broadcast
Posted at 9:05 AM, Nov 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-14 14:16:31-05

(City of Billings Press Release)

BILLINGS - 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.