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Rapid City, Sioux Falls law enforcement agencies to silence scanners

Rapid City police vehicle (file photo)
Rapid City Police Department
Rapid City Police Department
Rapid City police vehicle (file photo)

The public has long had access to the chatter of police radios, but that is changing for the two largest metros in the state.

While law enforcement wants to get ahead of criminals, media advocates say the public also has a right to know police activities.

Soon, police scanners on either end of the state will get a whole lot quieter as law enforcement agencies in Sioux Falls and Rapid City move toward encrypted “P25” radio networks.

Sioux Falls Police Department Chief Jon Thum said this change, framed as a safety matter, was first advocated by the federal government in the weeks following 9/11.

“Going to encrypted radios which means public scanners will not be available in Minnehaha County or Pennington County starting Nov. 13," Thum said. "This decision was not made lightly, we’ve talked about a lot of different avenues, engaged our partners in many different ways, and what it comes down to is an officer safety issue and a victim safety issue.”

Thum said police in Rapid City and Sioux Falls will continue to be in communication with local media to maintain transparency. He also pointed the public in the direction of public crime logs, which Minnehaha County will now update with a half-hour delay.

David Bordewyk is executive director of the South Dakota NewsMedia Association. He empathized with the need for safety on the ground, but he said something irreplaceable will be lost on delay.

“It’s not the unfiltered version of radio traffic coming over the scanner," Bordewyk said. "Not to say that I don’t trust what law enforcement is putting into logs – but I’m saying having that unfiltered sort of information coming to a journalist is often very helpful in being able to discern what is happening.”

Minnehaha County Sheriff Mike Milstead acknowledged the change will make things harder on reporters but says the “bad guys” listening in on police communications interfere with their work.

Bordewyk said reporters and criminals aren’t the only people who listen though.

“It’s not just news media here that loses, but the public that is served by news media and I believe you have a lot of citizens who are not journalists who monitor scanner traffic on a regular basis," Bordewyk said. "That serves a benefit because if a citizen hears something via scanner, that may allow that citizen to provide input to law enforcement. You lose that now with the encryption.”

Further, Bordewyk questioned the level of access the state provides about law enforcement activity and emergency responders before considering the looming removal of scanner chatter.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering the legal system, education, and culture