By Shereen Siewert

WAUSAU — The Marathon County Sheriff’s Department is now encrypting all police radio transmissions, preventing the public and the media from monitoring law enforcement activity.

The practice of encryption has become increasingly common from Florida to New York and west to California, with law enforcement officials saying they want to keep criminals from using officers’ internal chatter to evade them. But journalists and neighborhood watchdogs say open communications ensure that the public receives information as quickly as possible that can be vital to their safety.

Here, the policy went into effect July 1 with no official word to the public. Fire and EMS transmissions are still public.

The decision was made in response to advancing technology that allows more people to monitor police movements, said Marathon County Sheriff’s Capt. Bill Millhausen.

“Criminal suspects have been found using smartphone applications and or portable scanners to monitor police responses to their crimes, thus posing a risk to responding units,” Millhausen said.

Millhausen said local police have arrested a number of people with scanners and scanner apps in their possession, including a man arrested following a robbery of a local credit union.

Critics say the decision badly hampers the media’s ability to report the news in a timely manner, leaving residents in the dark about critical incidents that have an immediate impact on public safety. Police departments already have the capability to communicate securely, and alert scanner listeners have at times helped police solve crimes or offered critical information they wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Adam Marshall, a spokesman with the Washington, D.C.-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said officer safety and media access can and should be balanced.

“We certainly recognize the need to protect officer safety and we don’t want to dismiss that,” Marshall said. “But it is also widely recognized that there is a real public interest in having media present in emergency scenes that protect the public. Having the media present will help shed light on what’s happening, and can help alert the public so they can take appropriate measures.”

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said withholding police transmissions from the public airwaves is not illegal under Wisconsin’s open records laws, but is an unfortunate loss of transparency.

“People forget that transparency is a way to build trust in the community,” Lueders said. “Taking away a tool that gives the public a sense of what police officers do every day is not good for the public and is not a good way to build trust.”

Some agencies have agreed to a compromise with the press. In Springfield, Mass., for example, one day after local police entered into a radio blackout, officials agreed to give members of the press access to unencrypted transmissions. Wausau Pilot and Review is calling on Marathon County Sheriff Scott Parks to do the same, but has not yet received a response.

Millhausen said his department has been approached by others in the community to be allowed access to the encrypted frequency but so far has not authorized any non-law enforcement agency or business to have access. That decision has been made based on officer and community safety, he said.

But Marshall said the decision to encrypt all police radio traffic should be reconsidered.

“The decision to shut down access ultimately hurts the public,” Marshall said.