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Encrypted police scanners: What should Billings expect now?

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Posted at 6:16 PM, Nov 17, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-17 20:16:46-05

BILLINGS — It's been just a couple of days since the Billings Police Department started encrypting their radio communications.

It’s not a new concept: the Denver Police Department encrypted its radio communications in 2019. MTN News took a deeper dive to learn the impact that decision has had in Colorado.

“It definitely inhibits us from doing our job to our full potential,” said Max Calise, the assignment desk manager at Denver7, an MTN sister station also owned by E.W. Scripps Co. Part of his job relies heavily on listening to police scanners.

“We’re the ones kind of listening and trying to figure out what news is and vetting those stories to make it happen,” Calise said.

Denver police’s decision to encrypt radio communications greatly hinders the assignment editor’s job.

“A lot of assignment editors down here are very frustrated at the lack of information that police departments are providing during breaking news events,” said Calise.

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Calise said that the problem is magnified with smaller departments that don’t have a public information officer on standby 24/7 to inform the media of what’s going on so that they can inform the public.

“The problem happens when, you know, there’s a mass shooter on the run at three in the morning when a police department doesn’t have that position staffed,” Calise said.

Like Billings, the Denver Police Department started encrypting its radio communications in the name of maintaining officer safety.

“To compromise some of the things that we do, you had people that were serving as lookouts and would know that we were coming and would pick their friends up and go,” Chief Rich St. John of the Billings Police Department told MTN News Monday.

Lee Banville, director of the University of Montana’s journalism school, highlighted the importance of the public's right to know what police are doing.

“Question is, is Billings willing to accept that a potential threat to officer safety outweighs the Billings residents' right to know what’s going on in their town?” Banville said.

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Banville understands how the two perspectives might clash.

“At the end of the day, the Billings PD has a reason why they’re doing this, but the journalist or the public who care about access to this information also has an argument,” said Banville.

He said there could have been an opportunity for conversation between Billings police and local media before the decision was made.

“I think that is a missed opportunity to have a conversation about people who have legitimate claims to being a surrogate for the public and wanting to know what’s going on in their government,” Banville said.

But St. John is adamant that communication and transparency between the media and the public will remain the same despite the change.

“Media, of course, that’s our nexus to the community so we want to make sure we’re getting them information,” St. John said.

Calise isn’t too sure what the future holds when it comes to media outlets using police scanners.

“Going forward, the future is here now basically, and scanners may be a thing of the past, but who knows,” said Calise.