By Aubrey Wieber
On July 27, the steady hum of static and radio scanner chatter filling newsrooms and some Deschutes County homes fell largely silent. Reports from local fire agencies, the Oregon State Police and Oregon Department of Transportation sounded occasionally, but the conversations from area law enforcement organizations about reported crimes, violent encounters and other police-related emergencies ceased.
The silence came after all Deschutes County law enforcement agencies replaced their aging analog radio system with a digital system and then encrypted the conversations that once floated freely through the air. The change blocked personal scanners from hearing the information online, on phone apps or on hand-held or desktop receivers.
Those looking to monitor law enforcement agencies in Deschutes County as a hobbyist, government skeptic or a media outlet were out of luck.
According to Steve Reinke, director of Deschutes County’s 911 service, which dispatches police, fire and medical emergency services for 15 agencies, no private citizen can listen to the encrypted network, regardless of equipment.
Deschutes County will at some point provide the scanner chatter on a 30-minute delay, which will be available online. The specific web address for the delayed feed has not been created yet. All agencies will have the ability to pause the delayed feeds to withhold sensitive information, but unaltered copies of the scanner traffic will be available through public records requests.
The delayed feed is not available yet. Reinke said each agency uses different radios, and his staff is working on getting all of the radios to work together on the network. Once the bugs are worked out, he can focus on the delayed feed, which he says should be up by January.
Law enforcement agencies say their need for radio scanner secrecy is two-fold: Encrypted channels help them do their jobs to the best of their abilities, and are safer for officers.
But the practice also shuts out the public. For decades, the media has demonstrated a clear interest in hearing scanner traffic, as it alerts journalists to breaking news in real time.
In the past, The Bulletin has used scanners to be able to quickly arrive on scene for a variety of different stories, from the collapse of a snow-laden roof to a murder. Arriving on scene allows reporters to get details and interview witnesses to give readers an independent account of a news event.
Some citizens enjoy listening to the feeds, though it appears to be a small section of the community.
While each law enforcement agency has the ability to decide whether to encrypt, all agency heads decided jointly to go forward with encryption, with two exceptions: Fire agencies have decided against it, and OSP is still weighing its options. Members of the public who want to listen to fire and other agencies that aren’t encrypted can do so on a digital scanner, on a smartphone through free apps or online on websites such as www.broadcastify.com.
Bend Police Chief Jim Porter, who has been a police officer since 1983, said technological advancements spurred the decision.
“We have seen an increase in individuals monitoring our radio, monitoring our police officers’ movements,” Porter said. “And we have seen criminals using advanced technology to escape us.”
Porter, who has been with the Bend Police Department for 26 years, said more and more often his officers have found suspects have smartphone apps that broadcasts the scanner feeds. He pointed to a 2015 case where a suspect was believed to have broken into 34 cars. When police located him, he was driving down the street looking for cars to break into while monitoring the scanner to try and avoid being caught, Porter said.
Specific examples like that are not common. Porter could recall two other times since the 1980s where a suspected criminal was found to be listening to the police scanner, though he said it’s impossible to know how common it is.
Porter said he didn’t hear objections from any members of the public after announcing the change in July. Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Paul Garrison said he personally received a handful of emails, and Sheriff Shane Nelson talked with some members of the pubic as well. Reinke said he got one email about it.
Porter said he did consider the public interest, but found the need to enforce laws and keep the public safe took priority.
“It does not serve the public to have people getting away from us because they have apps,” Porter said.
Sunriver Police Chief Marc Mills said he had a situation where homes in Sunriver were being burglarized, but it was always homes that were far away from where officers were at that time.
“When you start evaluating things like that, it is my belief that whoever these perpetrators are knew where my officer was,” Mills said. “It’s pretty easy when they are scanning our frequency.”
Porter said some of those interested in hearing the feeds — media and regular citizens — have impeded officers from doing their jobs. Porter recalled a situation about two years ago where an armed perpetrator claiming to be strapped with a bomb walked into a bank. Porter said his officers had surrounded the bank, but were staying out of sight to avoid tipping off the robber.
“Within a few minutes a local media outlet pulled right up into the parking lot of the bank to see what’s going on,” Porter said. “That not only endangered everyone inside the business, it endangered the entire investigation.”
Porter said another issue is the public hearing about a situation and arriving on scene to check it out, and then his officers have to deal with crowd control rather than doing their jobs. However, the Bend Fire Department often deals with the same issue, and fires can sometimes be far more visible than crime scenes.
Dave Howe, battalion chief for Bend fire, said there is no plan to go to an encrypted channel. However, Howe said the two jobs are pretty different.
“We do have people who show up, but we don’t have to shoot anybody, you know,” he said, adding that the danger level to the public is different. Howe said in general, people are respectful and stand far enough away to not be a hindrance.
Both Porter and Garrison said that while encryption will allow officers to do their jobs better, it will also make them safer. Both said scanner traffic could be used to monitor police tactics and whereabouts to plan a deadly attack on officers, and mentioned that violence against police is on the rise. According to FBI statistics, officers killed while on duty jumped 37 percent in 2016 with 118 officers killed. Assaults on officers increased 14 percent in 2016.
“We’re not trying to appear nontransparent,” Garrison said. “We are trying to take care of the officers and deputies on the calls, and make a safe working environment for them.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0376, email@example.com