Genesee County, Mich., Moves to Encrypt Police Radio Traffic

The move came as part of a $6.2 million upgrade to more than 1,300 radios including, cars, portables, consoles and desktops. The new radios replaced equipment that had exceeded its shelf life.

by Roberto Acosta, The Flint Journal / May 31, 2019
Shutterstock/Chris worldwide

(TNS) — For those who’ve listened to the crackle of the scanner traffic over desktop or handheld radios over the years in Genesee County, the silence heard Thursday afternoon was deafening.

As of approximately 3 p.m. May 30, all police scanner traffic for local agencies — including colleges — became encrypted.

The move came as part of a $6.2 million upgrade to more than 1,300 radios including cars, portables, consoles and desktops.

Spring Tremaine, executive director of Genesee County 911, said the idea has been in discussions prior to her time with the organization which began in December 2017.

The digital encryption does not include fire and EMS calls, Tremaine said, unless they are dealing with a police agency and switch to a different channel.

The new radios replaced equipment that had exceeded its shelf life, with some of them more than 10 years old and not able to be repaired.

Along with the new equipment came the possibility of encryption, Tremaine said.

“It was really a question of whether you opt into that capability or opt out,” she added. “Police have been wanting to go toward encryption. It’s primarily for safety of the police and the public... We all have some base knowledge that bad guys are listening to us.”

Metro Police Authority of Genesee County police Chief Matt Bade said it’s a balancing act between the public that may be interested in the hearing the radio traffic and officer safety issues.

“At this point in time in our society it falls towards the officer safety issue,” he commented.

Bade said he has been in situations over his law enforcement career including active armed robberies during which suspects “are listening to scanners...they know where we are, they know where we’re coming from” as well as pointing to Homeland Security issues and active assailant situations.

“The trends towards these attacks lead to having encrypted radio traffic for law enforcement,” he said.

But not all completely agree with that assessment.

For others, being able to listen to the scanner traffic provided some sense of knowing what’s going on in their neighborhoods.

“I get the public/first responder safety thing, I’m a cop’s daughter…so I get that,” said Debbie Hostetler, one of the owners of the Genesee County Scanners Facebook page that posts scanner information on a variety of incidents such as traffic crashes, shootings and road closures.

“I also believe that getting info out to the public helps their safety as well,” she said. “Not to mention ... the public have eyes and ears that can contribute to tips for the police based on what they hear for themselves from the scanner-or-from what they see on our page.”

Having gained a following of more than 58,000 people, Hostetler said “the community has become dependent on that information for a variety of reasons, not all of which is bad &/or endangers the police.”

She noted most of the time the concerns of the community simply come down to ‘what the heck is happening, why are the police around here, where is the danger present?' types of things. They get that info from our page and pages like ours.”

“We answer those questions and most likely prevent additional 911 calls getting asked the same,” said Hostetler.

She noted scanner traffic has been available for decades, with more people listening in due in part to pages like theirs -- and others such as Flint Police Operations and Flint Michigan Scanners -- due “in part to our own curiosities.”

“But if keeping a 'shooting' or high-profile crime from being heard is the standard that Central Dispatch thinks will 'keep' the bad guy around to be caught, they're still going to run,” said Hostetler. “It's not going to help police in finding them.”

While she understood some people would not be happy about the change, Tremaine said, “I would certainly hope the public is in support of keeping their public safety (officials) safe.”

She pointed toward neighborhood watch groups, urging neighbors to talk with each other and share information with one another about what’s taking place and forward any concerns to police.

Active incidents such as crashes and fires will continue to go up on the Genesee County 911 website, but it does not include shootings and stabbings.

Tremaine said the move isn’t about withholding information.

“It’s an effort to keep everyone safe,” she said.

©2019 The Flint Journal, Mich. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.