LIHU‘E — The Kaua‘i County Council voiced support for the Kaua‘i Police Department’s continued efforts to encrypt dispatch communications.
KPD Chief Todd Raybuck said that it’s “pretty common knowledge where our officers are assigned and how many officers we have on the road.”
“A person could easily deduce the level of availability of our officers by listening to the scanners and then take advantage of the lack of resources to respond to commit crimes,” Raybuck said. “Encryption will allow us to eliminate that possibility for criminals to continue to monitor our activities and then utilize that for their gain.”
Wednesday, the County Council gave unanimous approval to the department to use $403,356 in unexpended funds to further encrypt and upgrade its radio system in hopes to complete the transition by the end of the year.
The unexpended funds come from KPD’s fiscal year 2021 budget, due to unexpended salaries from 29 vacant positions, a KPD spokesperson said.
The department is authorized to have 162 sworn positions, and aims to have 12 patrol officers positioned to meet a 10-minute response time on an emergency call at any given time.
Over the last few years, the department has spent about $1 million to upgrade and encrypt software to restrict unauthorized listeners from listening in to what has commonly been on a public airwave. Whereas scanners were typically costly hardware, users can now download an app on their phone for free or pick up a low-cost radio to tap in.
“I was surprised I got a little bit of pushback. Some people weren’t happy with this choice,” Councilmember Felicia Cowden said. “And I will say as being a friend of a pretty broad base of the community even 15 to 20 years ago, I would be surprised how just anybody could listen to what the police were doing.”
Cowden, chair of the council Public Safety and Human Services Sommittee, said it’s a “pretty big weak link that people know when the officers are either busy doing something else or coming in their direction.”
The funds will go toward purchasing and installing 62 replacement mobile radios with pre-installed encryption software, and installing software on 43 current radios.
A portable radio costs on average between $6,500 and $7,000 per unit, Raybuck said. All KPD portable radios have already been encrypted.
KPD is following a national trend of police departments opting to restrict public access to official radio transmission for the last decade.
Tactical channels have been used for critical information, as well as by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. However, the Federal Communications Commission and the federal Communications Act do not prohibit listening to emergency-service reports or sharing heard information.
Media and news organizations have historically used police scanners to follow up on events, whether at that moment to get to a scene, talk to eyewitnesses or verify information with county officials.
Councilmember Billy DeCosta asked how news organizations will be able to retain this access.
“I certainly am open to entertaining requests by the media, and then we can cross that bridge about whether or not that encryption or decryption of the radio services would be available to them,” Raybuck said, also pointing to the department’s public information officer, who acts as a liaison to get information out on social media and to news partners.
Commonly transmitted over the scanners are names, addresses, license numbers, criminal or warrant history and birth dates, as well as addresses and locations of incidents or calls.
“Unfortunately, social media provides a platform for people to prepare and respond however they choose in critical incidents, or in protests and things like that,” Raybuck said. “Encrypting and protecting the police communications isn’t only important for our safety. There’s the other piece that we didn’t mention earlier, and that is protecting people’s confidential and sensitive information.”
Raybuck said this can lead to identity theft.
The Kaua‘i Fire Department, emergency medical technician units and state entities will be on separate channels that KPD will not encrypt.
Sabrina Bodon, public safety and government reporter, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.