Here is a press release from the City of Billings:
BILLINGS, Mont. – The City of Billings/Yellowstone County Emergency Communications Center will begin encrypting all city law enforcement radio communications for officer safety and security of sensitive information.
This change, which is scheduled to take place on November 15, 2022, means that any communication from the Billings Police Department usually heard through a scanner will no longer be released publicly.
This decision was made after careful consideration, legal review and extensive research.
Radio communications almost always contain confidential, sensitive, and personally identifiable information that is protected by the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA), as well as criminal justice information laws.
“It is essential that law enforcement have as much information as possible when responding to a call. It ensures safety and relevance. Currently, scanners broadcast personal information that the public is not authorized to know, and we are responsible for the security of this information,” explained Billings Police Chief Rich St. John.
This information, along with the safety of first responders and operations, is put at risk by a local scanner audience who share sensitive information on social media.
In other situations, officers have encountered individuals with scanner apps who use the information to help commit a crime.
“Encryption also protects the public. Citizens may not report a crime for fear that a criminal with a scanner will pinpoint their location and seek revenge. Encryption eliminates that factor,” Chief St. John said.
The use of social media to share radio traffic has led to significant hearings and rallies during law enforcement incidents.
As a result, additional law enforcement is needed for crowd control, protecting the integrity of the stages, exercising proper criminal procedure, and public safety.
Reassigning officers to the scene for these reasons reduces the number of law enforcement officers available to respond to other emergency calls, creating longer response and wait times.
Encrypting radio communications is a trend seen in other cities for similar reasons. To encrypt radio communications, Center 911 would activate existing technology at no additional cost.
“Offering filtered encryption to the public would be labor intensive and would require time and manpower. A delayed radio feed would give law enforcement a head start before the information becomes public, but that still doesn’t solve the problem of protecting personal information,” said Derek Yeager, director of the City/County Emergency Communications Center.
Encryption will not interfere with records and interoperable communications between city, county, state and federal law enforcement agencies.
This change does not interfere with the City’s commitment to transparency. All calls are recorded and available through public information requests.
“Not being able to listen to outgoing calls does not affect the liability of agents. Body and dash cams are used, and the complaint process remains the same,” Chief St. John said.
Additionally, the Billings Police Department will continue to send out press releases and share timely and relevant information about large-scale incidents with the public via Twitter.