Quiet scanners add another layer of opaqueness to law enforcement

November 19, 2023 8:00 am
(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Police are called on to “protect and serve.” In South Dakota that’s what they do, but they do it on their own terms. Too often those terms lack transparency.

This became apparent again recently with the announcement that on Nov. 13, privately owned police scanners in the state’s two largest counties would go quiet as law enforcement agencies there will encrypt their radio traffic.

The public will be shut out of listening to scanners in Minnehaha and Pennington counties. Officials described the change as an effort to protect law enforcement officers, witnesses and crime victims, according to a Rapid City Journal story about a press conference announcing the change.

“The public has an expectation that if they call the police, we’re going to track down the suspects and apprehend them, and this job is difficult when the bad guy can listen to our playbook on their cell phone,” explained Rapid City Police Chief Don Hedrick.

Keeping information away from the public seems to be baked into the DNA of South Dakota law enforcement. In this state, investigative reports for closed or inactive cases are not considered open records. Neither are calls for service.

If law enforcement in South Dakota gets any more opaque, soon the Crime Tips number will be unlisted.

In South Dakota there is no requirement for releasing the tapes of 911 calls or body cam or dash cam video. Reporters who move to South Dakota from other states are often astonished at the amount of information that they can’t get from law enforcement.

There have been some strides toward law enforcement transparency. About a decade ago, the Legislature approved allowing public access to a police log of incidents. Typically these are filled out with the sparest of language. What they lack in detail they make up for in brevity.

In 2017, the Legislature approved releasing booking photos, also known as mug shots, for people who have been arrested for felonies. While this is some progress, note that it took new laws approved by the Legislature to provide access to those records. It’s hard to tell what any future attempts to add transparency to South Dakota law enforcement would look like. Republicans, who hold super majorities in both houses, were once known as the law and order party. With their leading candidate for the presidency facing four felony indictments, who’s to say what they believe these days.

One of the largest line items in any city or county budget is law enforcement. Now, at least in Pennington and Minnehaha counties, the people whose taxes pay for that law enforcement will be shut out of knowing what their police agencies are up to when they hear the sirens blare.

Newsrooms, too, traditionally monitor law enforcement scanners. It’s hard to tell people what’s going on in local public safety without the heads-up from scanner traffic.

Recently, when six Brooklyn precincts encrypted their scanners without warning, the New York Daily News editorialized against the move, citing the need for news media access to what’s being said on the airwaves by police. “They hear the first, unfiltered version of crime reports, including police shootings of civilians, which is essential given that when police departments are in sole control of the narrative, they have an understandable incentive to recount events in a way that makes them look good,” the editorial explained.

If this move against transparency continues, perhaps in the name of protecting officers they should all be made to wear plainclothes and drive unmarked vehicles. That way the public won’t be able to hear what they say or know where they are. If law enforcement in South Dakota gets any more opaque, soon the Crime Tips number will be unlisted.

While the change to encrypted transmission may be inspired by increased safety for officers, it’s hard to remember an instance when law enforcement claimed lives were lost or witnesses jeopardized because of what someone heard on a police scanner. Open communication on police scanners has worked for decades, providing important tips for journalists and a window into what’s happening in the community for curious taxpayers.


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Dana Hess
Dana Hess

Dana Hess spent more than 25 years in South Dakota journalism, editing newspapers in Redfield, Milbank and Pierre. He's retired and lives in Brookings, working occasionally as a freelance writer.