HAMILTON COUNTY, Ind. — News is a perishable commodity. If information is slow, it can quickly become outdated or even wrong.
Given that, central Indiana residents should prepare themselves for slower deliveries of some news coming out of Hamilton County. This is because of a decision made without any formal public input.
As of August 1, all police radio transmissions are encrypted. The usual chatter of officers responding to calls has been reduced to silence on police scanners and other devices monitoring the radio frequencies.
Almost since the advent of radio, anyone could tune in and listen to what police may be up to in any community in America. But recently, police departments around the country have opted to encrypt (or encode) radio frequencies.
Just last year, Hendricks County law enforcement encrypted its police radio channels. IMPD is studying whether encryption makes sense for their operation.
When Hamilton County officials were asked why they opted to encrypt police radios, they first pointed to a new state law.
“The change of Indiana Code that precludes the publication of dispatches that include Social Security numbers,” explained Chairperson of the Hamilton County Commissioners Christina Altman.
The law Altman references was passed last year and states, “After June 30, 2023, a law enforcement officer, a law enforcement agency, or an employee of a law enforcement agency may not broadcast a Social Security number over a police radio unless the broadcast is encrypted.”
At CBS4, our colleagues on the assignment desk listen to police radio calls every day and could not recall an instance when a Social Security number was recited over the air. But we are told by officers that while this is not common, there are times when a Social Security number is radioed while trying to confirm someone’s identity. This happens even though most police agencies have alternate channels and methods to have secure conversations.
The primary sponsor of law banning police radio broadcasts of Social Security numbers notes encrypting all police transmissions was not the intent of the legislation.
State Senator Kyle Walker tells CBS4, “The ability of law enforcement to use non-encrypted radios for any other means they deem appropriate is unchanged.”
Mike Hubbs, executive director of Hamilton County Public Safety Communications which oversees all police and emergency response radios in the county, said the move to encryption was driven by leadership in the various law enforcement agencies.
Their concern, said Hubbs, was to ensure officer safety from those who commit crimes and monitor police radio signals to learn where cops are positioned.
Hubbs added, “There are also certain incidents which are what we consider confidential, like a narcotics investigation and sex offenses.”
But Dave Arland, executive director of the Indiana Broadcasters Association (IBA), sees a broader problem with encryption.
“You’re literally killing a fly with a sledgehammer,” said Arland.
He explained IBA and a number of local news organizations lobbied unsuccessfully against encryption in Hamilton County fearing it may slow vital information from reaching people outside police agencies.
Arland explained, “I think there’s a real risk that there’ll be an incident we don’t find out about. We’ll be unable to let the public know about it.”
Local media alerts about things like bad traffic accidents, weather emergencies, shootings and other emergencies often begin with information heard over police scanners in newsrooms.
Hamilton County instead now supplies news outlets and the public with a website. On a five-minute delay, it supplies the time and date of a police call, the address, call type and responding police agency.
But CBS4 found on some police calls, including for “shots fired”, the address was blank. We’re told blanks indicate the location was not verified. After pointing this out, the website now uses the notation <UNKNOWN> instead of a blank space.
It’s important to note that the decision to encrypt police radios in Hamilton County came about without any real public discussion or public hearing.
When asked why a significant decision like encrypting police radios was made without seeking comment from the public, Altman responded, “My experiences with public hearings has been very low participation. But this is not an item I think the public weighs in significantly on because it’s been in the media for about four-or-five months now… and the only concerns I’ve heard were from the media and not the public.”