Havre Daily News
There's no Montana or federal law that allows the public access to police or other public service radio communications, and without it, the issue will be handled in different ways throughout Montana.
"It's public information," said Bill Larsen as he sat at a bingo machine at the Eagle's Club earlier this week. "The airwaves are public."
That's a misconception, Washington, D.C., attorney Kathleen Kirby said. Kirby represents the Radio and Television News Directors' Association.
Kirby said she's watched a national trend toward digital radio technology and she said the impact varies state to state. In some places, it means that journalists don't have access to police scanners.
"In some states, they have used state open record laws" to give the public and journalists access to police radio communications.
According to Freedom of Information Hotline attorney Robin Meguire, radio communications in Montana are not protected as a public record.
When that's the case, Kirby said, she advises her clients to work locally, though she said that results in drastically different policies from place to place.
Mark Adams, a consultant with Northrop Grumman, the company the state has hired to coordinate a statewide digital network, said the region of the network that includes Hill County - the Northern Tier Interoperability Project - has not come up with a protocol to decide what will be encrypted. The first area to go online in the state with digital radio was Lewis and Clark County, which was organized as a pilot project for the rest of the network.
There, the sheriff has agreed to work with the media and with scannerland to accommodate both groups.
Sheriff Cheryl Liedle said she is planning to rebroadcast most of the Sheriff's Office communications on an analog frequency. Until she has the hardware to do that, her office has provided the Helena Independent Record with a digital radio for its use until that technology is in place.
"Unless it's a really, really high risk incident," it will be broadcast analog, she said.
In the meantime, scannerheads without digital scanners can't hear what her office is doing.
But Liedle said she wants to help them too.
Hill County Sheriff Greg Szudera said he favors encrypting most, if not all, communications. Havre Police Chief Mike Barthel said he may keep a general channel for day-to-day communications, but encrypt any communications about active investigations.
Barthel said the city doesn't have the technology now to broadcast that general channel on an analog frequency.