Charleston County law enforcement silence publicly accessible radio communications

Updated: Aug. 6, 2020 at 6:57 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Law enforcement agencies in Charleston County are silencing their communications over publicly accessible radio channels.

A spokesperson for Charleston County said people with criminal intent have been listening into police transmissions via scanners and smart phone applications, and it has become a public safety issue.

However, criminal justice reform groups argue the county’s encryption of radio channels is keeping the public in the dark about police operations, and taxpayers are footing the bill for it, too. The project cost Charleston County law enforcement agencies more than $1 million.

All law enforcement agencies in Charleston County, including North Charleston Police Department, Charleston Police Department, Mount Pleasant Police Department, Isle of Palms PD, Sullivan’s Island PD, and the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office are now communicating on encrypted radio channels.

The approximate cost of encrypting all of the sheriff’s office radios totaled $250,000, while the approximate cost of encrypting all other law enforcement radios using the Charleston County Radio System amounted to $825,000, which was paid for by each agency.

The change is happening now because of “the proliferation of police scanner smartphone apps,” according to Charleston County Public Information Officer Shawn Smetana.

“Encryption on the Charleston County Radio Network is currently enabled for all law enforcement radio traffic in Charleston County,” he said.

The only incidents that can now be publicly heard over radio channels will be those requiring mutual response from agencies outside of Charleston County.

“There are 46 mutual aid radio channels on the Charleston County system that remain un-encrypted that can be assigned,” Smetana said.

The founder of SC for Criminal Justice Reform said she was not shocked by law enforcement’s efforts to encrypt their communications; however, she was disappointed.

“Traditionally and historically our government, law enforcement agencies have limited peoples’ rights in the name of public safety over and over and over again,” Allie Menegakis said. “Limiting transparency, reducing rights, unfortunately it’s not the first time this has happened especially when it comes to police agencies and the criminal justice system in general.”

Menegakis said she hoped agencies would lean more towards increasing transparency.

“I think it’s concerning, and I think it’s the opposite direction of where we need to be going in,” Menegakis said. “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.”

Live 5 News does not report or rely on radio traffic for news reports. However, it can alert our staff to active and ongoing situations that are impacting the community.

“We use scanners everyday…it gives us an idea of where something might be happening, whether that’s a shooting, a fire, some sort of police incident,” Live 5 Assignment Manager Thomas Gruel said. “Without those scanners, we are purely relying on the various police departments to give us the details of what they want us to know.”

It can impact the media’s ability to alert the community to active scenes or hazards they may need to avoid.

“Regardless of the encryption, we will continue to release information about significant and/or newsworthy events. Many of the releases I send are unprompted by media inquiries,” Charleston County Sheriff’s Office Captain Roger Antonio said. “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.”

Other agencies have been mum about the transition.

The North Charleston Police Department refused to provide a statement or interview. The Mount Pleasant Police Department and the Charleston Police Department deferred comment to the county public information office.

“We are a part of the county radio system, so yes, we had to encrypt our radios in order to be able to communicate with them or any other agencies,” Folly Beach Public Safety Chief Andrew Gilreath said.

“The Town receives its dispatch services from Charleston County Consolidated Dispatch. For a small community such as Sullivan’s Island a dispatch center would not be financially sustainable. Whether or not the communications are secure would be a decision of the board. Either way the communications to law enforcement and fire service on Sullivan’s Island will be received,” Sullivan’s Island Town Administrator Andy Benke said.

“My understanding is that any law enforcement agency in Charleston County that is dispatched through the Charleston County Consolidated Dispatch should have switched to encrypted radio channels. We do fall into that category. There are many benefits to encrypted law enforcement radio channels. Some of those benefits include the safety it brings to officers while they are responding to calls for service. The encryption does not change the services that our law enforcement agencies provide for the communities that we serve. This step will also protect the identities of the individuals that may be discussed over the radio by law enforcement agencies with dispatch. Overall, this step will enhance the safety of our communities and the officers that serve them,” isle of Palms Police Chief Kevin Cornett said.

At this time, no agency in Charleston County has offered a specific example of a criminal using law enforcement radio communications to impede police operations.

Menegakis believes there’s other ways to protect and promote public safety without limiting transparency.

“If these agencies are having an exorbitant amount of alleged criminals that are fleeing from arrest due to listening to radio traffic, then I’d like to know how many of those cases they’ve had. Was it one? Was it 20? Was it none?” Menegakis questioned. “If we are going to be limiting the public’s rights, I want to know why we are doing that.”

Menegakis suggested law enforcement agencies delay radio traffic communications to preserve the opportunity for officers to make arrests and allow for transparency for the media and the public.

“We need to be moving towards more transparency in our police agencies and in government, specifically when it comes to law enforcement,” Menegakis said. “If they are really concerned about public safety, then we should be focusing on one thing that affects public safety, which is police misconduct. We’ve seen that in the wake of George Floyd, and all the deaths that have happened at the hands of police officers, which have this huge amount of power over the ordinary civilian. We need to be moving towards checking police and providing them with the tools to be successful and fair and in turn protect the public, not limiting the amount of information the public has.”

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