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'The end of an era': Local law enforcement now encrypting radio traffic

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SIOUX CITY | Police radios have been crackling in the background of Jeff Wessendorf's life for more than 40 years.

Growing up, he fondly remembers his parents running the Bearcat police scanner they bought from Greenville Pharmacy in Leeds. As he grew up, the 52-year-old kept at least one scanner in his home or vehicle, for use as a personal hobby and to monitor conditions during the winter for his snow removal business. 

"It's interesting," he said, describing what has kept him listening for so long. "And it's good for road reports and stuff like that."

Beginning a week ago, however, things changed for Wessendorf, as well as for the other loyal scanner hobbyists in the Sioux City metro. Radios ceased receiving traffic from most local law enforcement as the agencies began encrypting their main channels, which had previously been public.

While Wessendorf can still receive a few remaining fire department and medical channels, listening isn't quite the same, he said. 

"It's the end of an era," he said. "It was a hobby for a lot of people."

The encryption follows a major, multi-million-dollar upgrade at the Siouxland Tri-State Area Radio Communications System, or STARCOMM, which includes agencies in Woodbury County; Union County, South Dakota, and Dakota County, Nebraska.

On June 9, STARCOMM fully switched to upgraded radio equipment and joined Iowa's statewide radio system, which allows agencies to communicate with their local contacts from anywhere in the state.

At the same time, channels from all law enforcement agencies in the participating counties -- with the exception of the Union County, South Dakota, Sheriff's Department -- underwent encryption, meaning only those with specially enabled radios can hear the traffic. 

"Times have changed"

Sioux City Police Chief Doug Young said his department's decision to move to encryption was to prevent criminals from eavesdropping on their location and then using that knowledge to elude or ambush officers. 

"Times have changed. ... There are people out there that monitor police frequencies and commit crimes," he said. "You're going to see probably more departments moving toward this, if they haven't already done it."

Before the switchover, the department had used two encrypted channels -- one for tactical purposes and one for information -- and one unencrypted one for its main operations. Young said discussions among department officials to encrypt the third channel began after a pair of burglaries that occurred about a year ago, in which the suspects had vanished by the time police arrived on scene.

After authorities apprehended and interviewed the suspects, they discovered they had been monitoring scanner traffic through a cellphone app. 

South Sioux City police chief Ed Mahon said his department switched over for similar reasons, as well as to be sure that sensitive information like peoples' names, birth dates and social security numbers weren't being broadcast on the department's main channel, as had been previous practice. 

"Some traffic, when it gets out, is inappropriate for everyone to hear," Mahon said.

Mahon added that South Sioux City Police have the option to de-encrypt their main operations channel in the future if they find a way to remove sensitive information. 

"I don't think any hard-and-fast thing has been decided," he said. 

Wessendorf said he understands law enforcement's reasoning, but he's still a bit disappointed about the move. 

"It's a hobby for a lot of older people," he said. "It's kind of a disappointment for the honest people who use it like they're supposed to."

Statewide radio

As another aspect of the change, STARCOMM has now joined Iowa's statewide radio system, along with radio systems in West Des Moines and Dallas County.

The move has saved both STARCOMM and the state money by providing state-funded upgrades to STARCOMM's existing towers and updating aging equipment, according to city and county 911 director Glenn Sedivy.

Sedivy said STARCOMM's radio equipment was going to be obsolete by 2018, as Motorola would no longer support that version of the equipment. 

"We were 10 versions behind," Sedivy said. "This brings us up to the latest that Motorola has on the shelf."

Some local police departments, such as Sioux City and South Sioux City, have purchased new scanner radios, as well, replacing ones that were also nearing obsoletion.

So far, the Sioux City Police Department and Woodbury County Sheriff's Office have made arrangements to share encrypted main channels with local media to allow them to continue to monitor traffic. Mahon said South Sioux City is willing to work toward a similar arrangement. 


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