Police scanner access fading as agencies cite safety

Some departments embrace encryption, drawing scrutiny from media experts

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Deputy Corey Chance sped in his vehicle to the scene of a shooting that would leave fellow Deputy Zackari Parrish dead and six other people injured.

Chance's radio told him a gunman shot multiple officers the morning of Dec. 31, 2017. When he arrived on scene, word spread that an injured, unresponsive Parrish remained trapped in the gunman's apartment, along with Parrish's radio, feeding the suspect a stream of information.

An order went out to switch from the main radio channel to an encrypted one, but the new channel was buried under more than 15 options. Chance fumbled through channels as bullets zinged around him, searching for the right one.

The experience in Highlands Ranch is why Chance is glad the Douglas County Sheriff's Office has since encrypted — or blocked from the public — some of its main radio channels, and he hopes they encrypt all in the future.

But Jeffrey Roberts, who worked at The Denver Post as an editor and reporter for 23 years, is one of many raising concerns about the recent trend of Colorado law enforcement agencies encrypting their airwaves. Roberts is now executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, a nonprofit group that advocates for freedom of the press and open records.

Members of the public and media frequently listen to scanners or apps to follow radio chatter. It helps them gauge whether the government is serving the governed, Roberts said, or informs neighborhood watch programs.

Many journalists rely on scanners to know when and where breaking news occurs. Scanners inform their line of questioning, give them leads and so on. Encrypted radios leave them at the mercy of law enforcement agencies, Roberts said.

“You really need this information, otherwise you're just relying solely on the agency to let you know, and on their schedule, and in their fashion, and perhaps with their take on things,” he said.

Al Tompkins, the St. Petersburg, Florida-based Poynter Institute's senior faculty and group leader for broadcast media, said encrypting radio channels is a national trend that began more than 20 years ago.

While it is “easy to understand why police want to have private radio transmissions,” encrypting can present a host of problems for the news media, said Tompkins, whose institute is a nonprofit school for journalism that is a nationally renowned resource on media issues.

Some members of the law enforcement community say encryption is crucial for protecting private information and first responders' safety. Those opposed say it diminishes transparency and hinders the work of journalists.

To encrypt or not to encrypt?

The tragedy in Highlands Ranch spurred a policy shift at the Douglas County Sheriff's Office, which six months ago completed the encryption of two of its four main channels. It has roughly 20 in total. Prior to then its SWAT channels were encrypted.

The Columbia Journalism Review reported in January that more than two dozen Colorado agencies fully encrypt their radios. The Douglas County Sheriff's Office is still deciding if it will join those agencies. That remains a possibility, said Undersheriff Holly Nicholson-Kluth, although she did not know if or when a decision would be made.

The Denver Police Department is poised to block its radio traffic this spring. The agency's suburban counterparts range in their level of encryption.

In 2017, the Thornton Police Department switched from public to encrypted radio signals. The Arvada department has fully encrypted for roughly three years. Littleton's police department is researching encrypting one of its special operations channels. The Castle Rock department began encrypting certain channels five years ago. Its main channels are public and encrypted lines are used on a case-by-case basis.

The Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office encrypts two of its channels, one for SWAT and one for investigations, a spokeswoman said.

Other forces, including the Englewood Police Department, the Northglenn department and the Adams County Sheriff's Office, do not encrypt.

In Douglas County, Nicholson-Kluth said the sheriff's office encrypted some channels for two key reasons. The first was illustrated through the Highlands Ranch shooting, she said. The sheriff's office wanted deputies to easily and quickly find a secure channel when responding to serious incidents and to prevent suspects from tracking them through public channels.

“They don't want the bad guys listening in," Tompkins said.

But he questioned how often agencies could prove criminals use public radio channels to spy on law enforcement.

Douglas County's second reason was to protect personal information that's sometimes shared on the radio. If people were to make a public records request, Nicholson-Kluth said, it's the type of information that would be redacted under open-records laws.

Thornton police officer Matt Barnes, a department spokesman, said transmissions on public safety radio systems are “much more prevalent today and are increasingly used to” share information on law enforcement and private citizens. It contributed to the department's choice to encrypt, he said via email.

The Arvada Police Department switched after it experienced suspects tracking officers through radio scanners, said its spokesman, Detective David Snelling. Snelling described how in several instances, officers approaching a residence heard their transmissions from nearby smartphone apps or scanners seconds after they made them.

“You can imagine how unnerving that is,” he said, “when you can hear your own voice coming from inside the house.”

Snelling said the department switched over during an equipment update in 2015. It replaced or upgraded radio towers, installed in-car equipment, plus more, and because they had the ability to encrypt along the way, they did. There was no additional cost for the encryption, he said.

A bill introduced by state Rep. Kevin Van Winkle, R-Highlands Ranch, was killed in committee during the 2018 legislative session. It would have prohibited other agencies from following suit, allowing them to encrypt only in certain circumstances, such as tactical or investigative situations.

Van Winkle did not respond to a request for comment for this article, and it was not known if a similar bill would be introduced this legislative session, which ends in May.

Access for some

The Douglas County Sheriff's Office may be willing to provide media outlets with access to encrypted channels. Their concern is not with journalists listening in, Nicholson-Kluth said. In what form and at what cost remains undecided, but it could be through a link to an online streaming service.

Tompkins said that level of access is not uncommon in some media markets, where police supplied unencrypted scanners to newsrooms. Still, he cautioned it's “an uncomfortable answer” to the dilemma.

Law enforcement can become angry with the media and take scanners away, or “just as bad,” news departments are cognizant of that possibility and avoid being too critical of police.

Snelling insists media needn't worry about retaliation from his agency.

“Absolutely not. I think (transparency) is engrained in our culture at the Arvada Police Department,” he said. “I think we do have a pretty open and transparent department without having our radios open, and we're willing to answer or respond to any inquiries at any time.”

The Denver Post reported the Denver Police Department, which plans to encrypt possibly as soon as April, will require media outlets to sign a memorandum of understanding to access their radio communications.

Roberts said he — as a member of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, the Colorado Press Association and the Colorado Broadcasters Association — met with Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen and other department heads three or four times prior to the decision, at the department's invitation.

They discussed alternatives to encryption, he said. In the end, the department agreed to provide news organizations scanners at a lower-than-retail price if they signed the MOU. The language of those agreements is not yet available.

“There's not a lot of recourse that the news media has other than to make the argument that they need these tools to properly inform the public,” Roberts said.

The Arvada Police Department says it will not provide anyone access to its encrypted channels. Not its towing company. Not the media.

“We don't give communication devices out to any other entity,” Snelling said.

Tompkins said even if agencies encrypt radios, their communications should be recorded, and those recordings should be open to public records requests.

“The only upside may be that all of this forces news departments to develop real sources in police departments,” Tompkins said, rather than being “reliant on the sensational stuff that flows from scanners.”

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