Law enforcement agencies in Mason and Oceana counties are looking into encrypting their radio communications.
Encryption would put all agencies in each county one step ahead of today’s scanners, leaving listeners in the dark on what law enforcement is up to.
No final decision has been made on whether to undergo the process, said Ray Hasil, director of Mason-Oceana 911, the two counties’ dispatch center. He expects the process to take at least 12 months.
Fire departments and medical responders in the area have not moved toward encryption, Hasil said.
The Ludington Police Department has at least 21 radios to encrypt, and the cost to encrypt each one could run as high as $1,000, Police Chief Tim Kozal told a city committee in August. He said he’s hopeful that Mason-Oceana 911 will be able to cover much of the cost.
Local law enforcement heads told Shoreline Media that encryption keeps officers safe, protects civilian privacy, tamps down on rumors, preserves the element of surprise — and leaves in the cold a Facebook page that’s been posting events heard over the scanner.
Officers often request criminal histories and other information on suspects, which is relayed to them over the radio. Mason-Oceana 911 doesn’t have enough staff to run that information through a dedicated, encrypted channel, Hasil said.
The local heads also said they were bothered by a Facebook group that, since November, has been posting about events heard on police radios in Mason and surrounding counties.
Oceana County Sheriff Craig Mast said spectators arriving at active scenes based on scanner chatter and the Facebook page is “a growing issue” happening “more and more often.”
In a recent instance in downtown Hart, news of a man “suffering with his mental health and sobriety” drew a crowd, complicating the situation, Mast said.
“The guy was highly intoxicated, and there was a rifle involved, and now we’ve got a crowd of people involved because they’ve heard about this on a Facebook page,” he said.
Hasil said he’s not yet aware of any officers or civilians being harmed as a result of bystanders.
Gage Marvin, the Hesperia man who runs the Facebook page, sometimes posts more than a dozen times a day to nearly 18,000 followers. He said he feels it’s “everyone’s right” to know what’s going on with “the world the way it is,” referring to the coronavirus and police killings.
“I felt like everyone deserved to know the truth,” Marvin said of starting the page.
Marvin said he’s gotten “100 percent good responses” from a variety of emergency responders, who he said commended his page because he runs it “in a respectful manner.”
He said he waits to make a post until he hears an officer is on the scene, avoids posting names and crossroads and spares the details on grim incidents.
Officers are able to take conversations onto private channels, which Marvin said he is unable to access. But Kozal said those channels are “all available.”
They also sometimes communicate via cell phone calls. While that’s the most secure method, it prevents other officers from contributing to the conversation, Kozal said.
Mason County Sheriff Kim Cole said he doesn’t think Marvin is intentionally “malicious,” but “the fallout of his actions” puts people “in harm’s way.”
Cole said the page got under his skin when Marvin posted about a two-car collision where three people died. The family of one victim learned of the incident through Marvin’s page and arrived to find a dead loved one laying on the ground.
“No one should have to go through sitting at home and seeing a post … that their loved one’s car is in a million pieces and they know that it’s a fatality,” Cole said.
Marvin also posted about the other driver’s “lengthy criminal history,” which Cole said could impede their right to a fair trial and could taint a jury pool.
An Oceana County deputy and a state detective sergeant once visited Marvin’s home to discuss his procedures and explain their perspective. Mast said Marvin offered to “dial it back a bit,” but seems to have “stepped right back on the gas again.”
Marvin said if encryption moves forward, he plans to launch a petition against it.
“It sucks that they’d want to do that,” he said. “I’ll do anything I can try to do to stop it.”