SVPD switched to encrypted radio communication

Scanners will no longer pick up Simi PD radio communications

Department is first in Ventura County to go full encrypted to comply with AG mandate
November 05, 2020

By Sylvie Belmond and Kyle Jorrey

The Simi Valley Police Department is the first law enforcement agency in Ventura County to encrypt all of its radio and dispatch communications, making it impossible for the public and news media to listen in.

SVPD switched to encrypted radio communication Nov. 1 with no warning. Chief David Livingstone said the decision was made to comply with a mandate from California Attorney General Xavier Becerra that requires police agencies to prevent personally identifiable information from being broadcast over public airwaves.

“We understand people . . . want to know and listen to what’s going on. That’s part of transparency,” Livingstone told the Acorn on Monday. “The difficulty I’m having is that in order for me to comply with the law, I don’t have the staffing to dedicate a dispatcher just to handle encrypted information.”

Scanners are commonly used by journalists and interested members of the public to get real-time information about police and fire operations long before it’s put out through official channels like Nixle or on social media accounts like Facebook and Twitter.

Residents were made aware of the change Sunday when the man behind the popular @VCScanner Twitter handle, Simi Valley resident Thomas Gorden, tweeted to his 79,500 followers: “Due to (SVPD)’s new plan to encrypt all of their radio traffic, I will no longer be covering the Simi Valley area. The only exception to this will be large fire incidents.”

Gorden has earned a dedicated following by tweeting live updates during major emergencies like the 2018 Woolsey fire and the 2017 Thomas fire. He picks up key information by listening to scanner dispatches, then disseminates those details via Twitter. In 2018, he was the first person to share word of a mass shooting at Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks.

Reached by the Acorn, Gorden said he agrees that tactical and personal information should not be broadcast over open airways. He believes that SVPD should only use encryption on certain channels, which is what the Los Angeles Police Department and other agencies around the country do.

“The public should have the right to know what is going on in their community,” he said.

SVPD’s radio communications won’t be encrypted in all circumstances, Livingstone said. During emergencies, the chief said, the department “would have to unencrypt” in order to “communicate with other agencies that don’t have encryption.”

As unpopular as it might be with the public, encryption is becoming increasingly common among police and fire agencies. In 2019, Denver became one of the largest cities in the U.S. to take its communications private. Orange County voted last year to encrypt all of its police and fire radios only to reverse course within days so journalists and the public could hear operational channels used by county firefighters.

An Oct. 12 bulletin sent out by Becerra warned departments that information that can be used to trace a person’s identity, such as their first and last name combined with a Social Security number or driver’s license number, must not go out over unencrypted channels.

The bulletin gives departments two options: encrypt all radio transmissions or find another way to prevent the confidential information from being shared publicly.

Livingstone said it would be difficult for his small department to follow option 2 without hiring a new dispatcher, which he said is not in the budget, or overburdening the current staff of eight dispatchers.

“If we could dedicate one person full time to sit on the radio, we would,” he said. “I understand people’s enthusiasm (to listen to scanners), but for me, right now, it’s a staffing issue, plain and simple.”

“The key is what do we encrypt and what don’t we encrypt when we only have three people in the room to make that decision,” Livingstone said. “The simple approach is to be encrypted until we can find a better path forward.”

SVPD officers use a digital radio system, which can easily transition to full encryption. Gorden said the Port Hueneme Police Department is the only other agency in the county that has a digital system.

Sheriff won’t encrypt

In an interview with the Acorn on Monday, Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub said the county will to have to find another way to comply with the mandate because a move to total encryption is “cost prohibitive.” Asked what would make the change so costly, Ayub was not able to provide specifics.

He said VCSO is looking at a way to transmit the protected information over department-issued cellphones or mobile data computers in patrol cars rather than the radio.

“We have some means in which to communicate internally with the cellular networks already in place,” he said. “We’ll take advantage of those.”

Ayub said he first learned of Becerra’s intention to require encryption when the attorney general spoke in February to the California State Sheriffs’ Association. Ayub said Becerra told the sheriffs that their departments were all in violation of the law.

Asked if he supported encrypting police communications in general, the county’s top lawman said he had mixed feelings.

“I like the protections it affords our deputies in the field because we’ll get lookie-loos . . . and criminals, quite frankly, who will use our radio communications against us,” Ayub said. “It doesn’t happen frequently, but it’s not uncommon to find a burglar with a police scanner.

“On the other hand, I know that there’s a lot of people who listen to the scanners and take comfort in hearing their loved one’s voice or what’s going on in the community. I’m a little conflicted about it,” Ayub said, adding, “A lot of people want to hear what we’re doing.”

Scanner listeners sore

While he understands that SVPD must find a way to comply with the new regulations, Gorden said across-the-board encryption costs the public access to lifesaving information.

He also does not completely agree with SVPD’s argument that criminals are listening in.

“Since there is no online feed of SVPD radio traffic, the only way to monitor them is to spend a few hundred dollars on a scanner, figure out how to program it (and learn) what the radio traffic means.

“It took me a couple of years to . . . decipher law enforcement radio traffic since they use codes for many things,” he said. “It is my opinion that the chances of a criminal going through all that work is extremely minimal.”

Newbury Park resident Joel Council, a crime blogger and videographer who operates the Safety for Citizens Facebook page, said he’s already talked to SVPD officers who fear the move to encryption could put them at greater risk for harm.

“They tell me, ‘We’re on an island,’” Council said. “They feel like their safety is being jeopardized.”

Council said a problem could arise if the nearest responding patrol car is from an outside agency and a Simi officer needs help.

“They wouldn’t be able to hear the call. They would have no idea something was going on,” he said.

Council, who relies on scanner traffic to find news to cover, said he’s happy county agencies are planning to remain unencrypted and hopes SVPD has a change of heart.

“Whether it’s a shooting or a robbery, people want to know in real time what is going on, they want to know if they’re in danger or not,” Council said. “If anything, it gives them peace of mind.”

Livingstone said he’s open to changing the encryption policy “if we can find an approach to do it safely, without compromising the officers or overburdening the staff we have right now.”

“I talked to Sheriff Ayub, and they are working on other plans. We may adapt ours, too, as we get more information,” he said.