Jul 09, 2024

Ellis County police scanners go mute; agencies argue they will continue to be transparent

Posted Jul 09, 2024 10:01 AM

Hays Post

Police scanners across Ellis County went quiet on Monday. 

As a part of an Ellis County public safety radio infrastructure upgrade, radio traffic will be encrypted for all the public safety radio channels in Ellis County, including the following agencies: Victoria Police, Victoria Fire, Fort Hays State University Police, Ellis Police, Ellis Fire, Ellis County EMS, Ellis County Fire, Ellis County Sheriff, Hays Police and the Hays Fire Department.

This means that home police scanners and scanner apps will no longer be able to pick up radio traffic from these law enforcement agencies and emergency departments.

The added layer of encryption is part of a statewide effort to protect information broadcast over public safety radios. This will make the radio traffic compliant with the Kansas Criminal Justice Information System and the Federal Bureau of Investigation requirements, according to a press release from Darin Myer, Ellis County manager.

Although the Kansas Highway Patrol is not using encryption, the agency plans to make that move in the future.

"In addition to Kansas Criminal Justice Information System, encryption also increases safety for our emergency responders, as well as it will help protect the information shared over the radio regarding members of the community," Myers said.

Myers said certain law enforcement radio traffic to this point has been limited because of the requirements on non-encrypted channels.

There are also Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act privacy concerns about releasing certain medical information over the radio during medical emergencies, he said.

"During an emergency response, it is our primary focus to ensure the safety of the incident scene and our personnel," Myers said.

Being able to communicate over the radio exactly what and how to operate at an incident allows better communication to all staff, he said.

Myers said encrypted traffic means criminals can't listen in to law enforcement and emergency personal activity, and those criminals can't use that information to create a counter plan for the emergency response.

"We also know that we need to have public information releases to inform everyone what is going on," Myers said. "It is hard to juggle these two because the faster and safer our personnel resolve an incident, the quicker the public is free of harm."

Max Kautsch, legal hotline attorney for the Kansas Press Association and Kansas Association of Broadcasters, questioned the need to encrypt all traffic.

A 2016 report in partnership with the Federal Partnership of Interoperable Communications discussed how some law enforcement agencies encrypted SWAT traffic but did not encrypt day-to-day patrol traffic.

In many cases, emergency medical traffic is encrypted to protect patient privacy, but the report noted the importance of emergency response vehicles' ability to communicate with medical facilities.

"The press release fails to account for the negative impact encryption has on the public's right to know," Kautsch said. "Reasonable alternatives, such as delaying the scanner broadcast, could accomplish the goals stated in the press release without cutting off entirely the public's access to a traditional means of gathering information that is squarely in the public interest."

Hays Police Chief Don Scheibler said he thought the HPD was transparent and would continue to be even though the police radio traffic would be encrypted.

"I think we are very transparent about what we do," Scheibler said. "We have regular meetings with [the Hays Post.] We release information on the Hays Post. We record every conversation we have with the public. ...

"I suspect the overwhelming majority of people don't listen to the scanner."

In addition, the HPD anticipates it will be rolling out body cameras next week. The agency has had cameras in their vehicles for some time. The Ellis Sheriff's Department and Corrections also have used body cameras for years.

Victoria Police Chief Cole Dinkel said that in large-scale emergencies, the department will inform the public through social media or a media release.

Dinkel said his department is willing to start releasing police activity reports to the Hays Post. Readers can already view Hays Police Department activity and arrests, Ellis County Sheriff activity, Ellis County Jail bookings, a monthly Ellis Police summary and FHSU police reports on the Hays Post under the Arrests tab.

FHSU Police Chief Terry Pierce said he did not think encryption of police radio traffic would affect police transparency or the ability to inform the public in cases of emergency.

The university also uses an alert system called Rave to alert students and staff members of campus-related emergencies.

The city of Ellis also has an alert system, which residents can sign up for by contacting the city clerk's office.

Ellis Police Chief Avery Smith said he thought his department was transparent and would continue to be so under the new radio system.

He said he thought encryption will help keep law enforcement, victims and those who report crimes safer.

"Several times in the last several years, we have had active scenes and we are still information gathering to determine where the threats are and whether they are armed," Smith said. "People have driven by an active scene. I think this will help us do our jobs more effectively."

"Moreover, in a couple of instances, we responded to scenes. The suspects who committed crimes are there, and we can hear scanner traffic coming from their pockets. They know who is coming and how many of us are coming, who the reporting person is and the reporting person's name. I think this will make reporting parties safer."

He said he thought the privacy that encryption offers would also protect sex offense victims and make them more comfortable in reporting those crimes.

Smith said the only alternative to radio encryption would be using cell phones to transmit private information, which, as a technology, is much less reliable than radios.

A radio channel will be open to the public to help with public communications during severe weather events. This channel will be used while trained storm spotters are reporting weather as it passes through Ellis County.

This weather channel is currently used as a tactical channel, called "TAC 5." It will just be changed to be called "Weather." It will not be encrypted so that the public can listen to the weather spotting activities and reports during severe weather, Myers said in an email to the Hays Post.

Although the directives for criminal justice information have been in place for years, Sheriff Scott Braun said the money only became available recently to upgrade the radio system.

This project was submitted as a grant request as part of the Kansas Local Safety and Security Equipment Grant Program. In late 2023, Ellis County was awarded $100,000 in assistance to help pay for the project from federal COVID relief funds.