LIHU‘E — Public access to police scanner radio transmissions will likely cease by the end of the year on Kaua‘i.
The Kaua‘i Police Department has requested approval last week from the County Council to use $403,356 in unexpended budgetary funds to encrypt and upgrade its radio system.
Encryption, a means of restricting unauthorized access through data scrambling, will prohibit non-law-enforcement officials from being able to listen in to what has commonly been on a public airwave.
Patrol Services Bureau Assistant Chief Mark Begley said the department has spent roughly $1 million in the last few years since the transition started, and has slowly been upgrading the system as money becomes available.
Police departments across the country have been opting to restrict public access to official radio transmission for the last decade, citing the need to protect sensitive information that is commonly transmitted over the scanners, including names, addresses, license numbers, criminal or warrant history and birth dates. This is one of the first reasons KPD Chief Todd Raybuck and Begley point to in a memo to the council.
KPD says it is a “significant safety vulnerability to our officers when criminals can listen to our transmission,” which allows others to know where officers are and allows listeners to know when officers are en route to a scene.
Tactical channels have been used for critical information, as well as Federal Bureau of Investigation lines.
The KPD memo also cites media and news organizations using scanners to follow-up on events as to why it is critical to encrypt the airwaves.
Police scanners often are used as starting points for breaking-news items, like traffic collisions, fires and other newsworthy items. Oftentimes, reporters are dispatched to scenes to talk to eyewitnesses and verify information with county officials.
Later this month, the Honolulu Police Department will complete its $15-million frequency encryption.
“What they’re talking about on Kaua‘i and Honolulu is changing a long-standing practice,” said Ed Lynch, a deputy editor at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, which is owned by O‘ahu Publications Inc., the parent company of The Garden Island. “(The use of scanners) has been going on forever, and now it’s a big privacy issue.”
The Federal Communications Commission and the federal Communications Act do not prohibit listening to emergency-service reports or sharing this information.
There’s a First Amendment right to cover news in public places, Lynch said.
The Las Vegas Police Department encrypted its scanners back in 2018, according to reports, but allowed local media access.
KPD does not have plans to do this.
“There is currently no justification for us to offer de-encryption to anyone outside of law enforcement,” Begley said Thursday in an email.
Raybuck and Begley pointed to free or low-cost apps and physical hardware that costs around $120 that makes scanner traffic too accessible.
“These technologies give anyone the ability to listen to in-progress calls for police assistance and the ensuing police radio transmissions,” the memo states.
The Kaua‘i Fire Department and emergency medical technician units will be on separate channels, but still be able to communicate with dispatchers, Begley said.
This latest overhaul will target purchasing and installing 62 replacement mobile radios with pre-installed encryption software and installing software on 43 current radios. All portable radios have already been encrypted.
KPD did not provide more-specific information other than the current model of radios, both portable and mobile, are Motorola brand.
Sabrina Bodon, public safety and government reporter, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.