Radio “Scanners” have long been used by media, press, and volunteer responders to listen to public safety communications in the U.S. Now, police departments nationwide are digitally encrypting their radio communications, cutting off access – just as the public seeks greater transparency and accountability from the police.
Portland police started encrypting officers’ radio communications June 3, days after nightly protests against racism and police brutality began. The switch came without public input or notice.
 In the past I have been a volunteer firefighter, a search and rescue volunteer, a Red Cross Disaster Services volunteer, and also an ARES/RACES communications volunteer. I often left a scanner running to have a “heads up” on potential call outs – this was especially the case for SAR, Red Cross and ARES/RACES communications in support of public safety agencies. As police – and some fire departments – encrypt their communications, this harms volunteers ability to respond. (Volunteers respond from their homes, don’t have red lights and sirens, and preparing to respond to a likely call out can save time.) Journalists are also cut off and this harms their ability to report on events occurring in their communities. Secrecy also harms public relations, obviously. But the truth is, scanner listeners are generally supportive of their local public safety agencies; cut them off and police lose that support.
Some agencies are encrypting their communications but distributing a non-encrypted audio stream on the Internet with a delay, ranging from 2 to 30 minutes.