Changes in 'scanner land'

 

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DANVILLE — Twenty years ago, Tammy Clow enjoyed listening to a police scanner for enjoyment.

"I'm nosy. I'm not ashamed to say it. If I see cops in my neighborhood, I want to know what's going on," said the Danville woman, who now runs an in-home day care.

With several kids in her house on a regular basis, her reasons for tuning in to "scanner land" have changed.

"Twenty years ago, we didn't have to worry about what we do today," Clow said. "Now, I have a day care, so when something is going on down on Buchanan Street, you know I want to know about that. Now, it's a safety issue."

When she takes her day-care kids outside to play in the yard, Clow brings her hand-held scanner.

"If something's going on, the kids are coming in and the doors are locked," she said.

But in early February, her scanner fell silent, along with all others tuning in to Vermilion County law enforcement and the Danville police and fire departments.

On Feb. 5-6, the Danville police and fire departments, the Vermilion County Sheriff's Department and police in most towns across the county switched from an analog to a digital communication system, and all channels are now encrypted.

Basically, that means every channel police and fire use to communicate, even initial calls from the 911 center, are coded and cannot be decoded by scanners. There are no commercially made scanners, devices or mobile apps that can decode the digital signals.

Other cities and counties across the U.S. have done the same.

In Illinois, Joliet and Rockford operate with full encryption. In Champaign County, the sheriff's office and Champaign and Urbana police switched to digital communication systems in 2005, and collectively, the decision was made to encrypt some channels, but not all.

Sheriff Dan Walsh said primary channels are not encrypted, but there are encrypted backup channels that can be used for special operations, like SWAT and drug enforcement, for example, when they don't want "everybody in scanner land to be listening." He said they don't want the "bad guys" who listen to scanners knowing their locations or other sensitive information.

But the "ordinary calls," he said, like traffic stops, domestic calls, accident reports and other community caretaking calls are all on open channels.

"A lot of citizens like to listen to police calls. ... There's no reason they can't or shouldn't hear those," Walsh said, adding the public pays the taxes to fund their operations. He said there may even be some benefit in people hearing what police are handling day in and day out.

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In Vermilion County, the sudden silence — actually, annoying static for some — caused confusion in scanner land.

But quickly, listeners learned of the switch and the word spread, especially on related Facebook pages, which erupted in protest.

"Honestly, the first few days, it was like total withdrawal, like anything else you are addicted to," said Clow, whose scanner now picks up only the communication of Danville ambulances. "I still get the one channel, so I will still listen, but not as much."

Danny Cope said he can still hear volunteer fire departments outside Danville. He has been listening to a scanner for more than 30 years. He and his wife live on Kentucky Avenue in Danville, where there have been multiple shootings in the last few years, including one of a police officer who survived his injuries. In the last five years, Cope and other scanner listeners in Danville started Facebook pages, posting what they heard for those who don't have them. Cope's page had more than 5,000 members. Another had more than 15,000.

"We always kept the public aware of what's going on," said Cope, adding that his page had rules and multiple administrators monitoring 24 hours a day to ensure everyone adhered to them.

Contributors were banned from posting specific addresses or names, descriptions of vehicles police were chasing and identifying information from vehicle accidents. And no revealing police road blocks, he said.

Cope said anyone in the group caught chasing emergency vehicles was banned.

"It was just to keep the public safe and well informed of what was going on," he said.

A few times, Cope said, police informed him of some who were showing up at scenes, and he banned them from the group. He said he understands why police had to make the switch to digital, but he doesn't understand the need to encrypt all channels.

"It's keeping the public from being informed of what's going on, and I don't think that's right," Cope said.

He is encouraging scanner listeners to sign a petition that fellow listener Debbie Manning recently started and hopes to present at an upcoming city council meeting. Cope said he believes city officials wanted full encryption so people are not aware of the crime happening in their community.

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Danville Public Safety Director Larry Thomason said going to full encryption was "all part of the package" when the city spent the money to upgrade to digital communications. He said it benefits law enforcement, because they can talk freely, knowing sensitive information isn't being broadcast to the public.

Thomason did not say that sharing scanner information on social media was a factor in the decision to go to full encryption, but he did say that incorrect information was being shared at times.

Vermilion County Sheriff Pat Hartshorn said officers can communicate more freely, and use names and addresses if they want. With the old system, he said, criminals could hear sensitive information like their location or destination.

"And this eliminates that," said Hartshorn, who explained that on the old system, they would have issues, particularly to the north, with the communications of other police agencies in Indiana "bleeding over" into their analog channels.

Encryption solves that, he said, but he added that they still have the ability to communicate with other police departments, like Champaign County, on designated channels. They still have common frequencies that deputies can switch to anywhere statewide and communicate with other law enforcement.

Bob Holloway, director of OSF Pro Ambulance, said he is not aware of any interoperability issues created by the switch to full encryption in Vermilion County. He said the ambulance crews have never had the ability to communicate directly with law enforcement even on the old system, and most communication is either by dispatch relaying information to them or face to face with officers once they are on a scene.

In an emailed statement, Laura Mabry, public relations coordinator for Carle, said Carle Arrow Ambulance doesn't expect the switch to full digital encryption to impact day-to-day operations.

"We do look forward to opportunities to discuss interoperability to ensure the necessary communication at major incidents and even incidents of smaller scale that might have safety implications," she said. "We certainly appreciate the need for confidentiality, and we also recognize that across the country there is emphasis on ensuring that police, fire and EMS can communicate for coordinated response."

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Greg Abbott, deputy director of Metcad, the primary 911 center for Champaign County, said "hours and hours" were spent discussing the layout of the digital radio channels, including which channels would be encrypted and which would not. He said full encryption was discussed but never seriously considered.

"Our whole thought was that most of what we do does not require encryption, because most of it is pretty routine traffic," he said, adding that they decided to go with encrypted channels they can use when necessary.

He said a seasoned officer can easily reach to his belt and switch to an encrypted channel with a couple clicks, and will hear an audible indicator in their earpiece confirming the channel. Abbott said generally, all calls are dispatched over an open line, and it's up to the police shift commander whether traffic on a certain call will move to an encrypted channel — sometimes, for example, it's so emergency communication on a more serious call is not interrupted by more routine communication, like a traffic stop.

"We go encrypted when we need it, but the majority of the traffic can be handled in the clear," Abbott said, adding that operating that way "just keeps that transparency" and lets people know how their tax dollars are being used.

Abbot said there's actually some benefit to "scanner land," because listeners are good eyes and ears, and can notify law enforcement when they see something; for instance, a vehicle described in a hit and run.

"So it can actually benefit," he said.

Urbana police Lt. Rich Surles said for the most part, especially for regular patrol operations, having an open channel doesn't hinder operations. And if they need a closed channel, they move everything to the encrypted ones.

"It's safer for the officers. The last thing we want is for a bad guy to know we are coming. But it works out just fine," he said.

The important thing, he said, is that they have access to closed channels.

"This is the way we've done business for a long time, and we've not found an issue with it," he said. "If we need a channel, we can get a channel."