Charleston police scanners go silent from public listening

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Law enforcement agencies in the Charleston area have switched to new radio channels that effectively shield most of their communications from the ears of the public.

The Charleston County Sheriff's Office, Charleston Police Department and other agencies in one of South Carolina's most populous counties spent more than $1 million to encrypt radio channels used within the county.

Charleston County spokeswoman Kelsey Barlow said the transition, which involved 10 agencies and had been in the works for months, was completed Wednesday.

Previously, commercially available police scanners allowed the general public and news organizations to listen in on police dispatch calls and other radio traffic dealing with agency responses to everything from mundane safety checks to emergencies such as fires or shootings.

The encrypted channels can't be heard outside the agencies that use them, though Charleston County still uses some of the old, publicly accessible channels for radio communications with neighboring counties.

Shielding police radios from the public was necessary because "people with criminal intent have been listening into police transmissions via scanners and even smartphone (applications),” Charleston County spokesman Shawn Smetana told The Post and Courier.

Encrypted radio channels have been gaining popularity with U.S. police agencies. That's raised concerns among advocates for government transparency, who say the change makes police agencies less accountable to the public.

“It limits the public’s information about the money that we as taxpayers are paying for the police to do, and it gives the police more power to choose incidents they wish to divulge to the media,” Alle Menegakis of the group SC for Criminal Justice Reform told WCSC-TV.

Though the public will no longer be able to listen to most radio traffic in real time, Charleston County sheriff's Capt. Roger Antonio said the agency will continue to publicly release information about significant calls it receives.

“The sheriff’s office understands the importance of releasing public information in as timely a manner as possible, in the interest of public safety and transparency,” Antonio said.

Jay Bender, an attorney for the South Carolina Press Association and The Post and Courier, said he's skeptical law enforcement agencies needed to encrypt their radio channels for security reasons. He noted that police agencies used secure radio channels to protect tactical operations and other sensitive communications even before they switched to encrypted channels.

“I don’t know of any instance where bad guys used a scanner to ambush police or avoid police,” Bender said. “I see this as just another step in the isolation of police from the communities they are to serve and protect.”