Police radios in a large swath of Denvers southeast metro area went dark this week as law enforcement in Douglas and Elbert counties encrypted their radio systems to block public access to the transmissions, which have for decades provided the public with live information on police activity.
The Douglas County Sheriffs Office, all law enforcement and firefighters in Elbert County who are dispatched by Douglas County, as well as the police departments in Lone Tree, Parker and Castle Rock all encrypted their radio traffic on Dec. 2, according to the sheriffs office.
The Arapahoe County Sheriffs Office plans to encrypt its traffic in January, along with the departments it dispatches for such as Sheridan, Cherry Hills and Cherry Creek State Park. Police in Littleton, Englewood and Greenwood Village also are joining the encryption trend.
Officials at the agencies cited concerns about officer safety, citizen privacy and the need to communicate with other encrypted departments as reasons for shielding the radio traffic from public listening.
There is a lot of information that is not public and shouldnt be public that is transmitted over the radio, said Josh Hans, spokesman for the Parker Police Department.
Its just for the safety and security of our deputies, said Deputy Cocha Heyden at the Douglas County Sheriffs Office
We need to be able to communicate without the bad guys listening in on us and knowing what were doing, said Littleton police Cmdr. Trent Cooper.
Joe Amon, The Denver Post
The departments are following a statewide trend many local agencies have already encrypted their traffic, including Denver, Thornton,Arvada, Aurora, Lakewood, Westminster, Greeley, Longmont and Fort Collins but the move continues to raise concerns among advocates for police and government transparency, who say encrypting radio traffic shuts down a key avenue of public information for both citizens and the news media.
When everybody is trying to say they are transparent, this is one of the least transparent things you can do, said Chris Vanderveen, 9NEWS director of reporting. Police radio traffic for decades has allowed journalists to know when police are responding to major incidents, and has provided key context for reporting on such incidents, Vanderveen said, like when a man shot at cars from a Denver parking garage in November.
When the guy was downtown taking shots at cars, the only word we got initially was Active shooter downtown, he said. And thats all we had. Before, we would listen to the scanner and it would give us a sense of, Is this a really hot area we are potentially going into, is this something the police are treatingseriously? Do we need to have our crews back off? We are now sending our crews into situations blindly; and that deeply concerns me.
Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said police radio traffic also allows reporters to get to the scene and interview witnesses accounts that can later confirm or cast doubt on information released by the police department.
Government doesnt always tell you everything, and there needs to be a watchdog on that, he said.
The Douglas County Sheriffs Office will grant some news media access to its encrypted radio traffic if the news organizations agree to several conditions set by the sheriffs office in a memorandum of understanding, and if the news outlet is determined to be legitimate a decision left to the sheriffs discretion.
Heyden said the goal of the agreement is to formalize what has in the past been an unwritten understanding that journalists would not report information heard on the scanner without first verifying it. Thats already a normal standard at reputable news organizations.
We felt this would be a good step to show that the issue of us encrypting didnt have anything to do with the media, it had to do with safety and security reasons, she said.
So far, one news station in Colorado Springs has signed the agreement, Heyden said.
Ginger Delgado, a spokeswoman for the Arapahoe County Sheriffs Office, said they will also offer media access to encrypted radio traffic on the condition of a signed memorandum of understanding when the county moves to encryption early next year.
Such agreements have at times been cumbersome, Roberts said. In Denver, police offered news media access to its encrypted radio, but only if the news organizations agreed to cover the citys legal costs in the event of legal action stemming from information gathered from police radio transmissions (unless the claim was because of the sole negligence or willful misconduct of the city). The city also wanted to be able to examine news organizations books, documents, papers and records related to the use of the city-issued scanner.
The Denver Post and all local TV stations declined to accept those conditions and have not been granted access to the citys encrypted traffic.
We will not agree to anything that would compromise what we believe to be good journalism, Vanderveen said. He added that police promises to put information out on social media and in press releases have fallen short.
All the police departments have taken this approach of, Oh we will give out information in time. All of them have shown theyre not, he said. And I dont think its devious, its just a logistical impracticality. Its not practical because they cant distribute that information quickly enough via Twitter.
Roberts said some cities have encrypted traffic yet still found ways to ensure access for the public and media, either by providing media with access to radio traffic without setting any conditions or in some cases by continuing to let the public listen in, but on a 10-minute delay.
Officials at eight law enforcement agencies who are planning to encrypt their radio traffic were hard pressed to cite specific examples in which suspects used scanner traffic to thwart police, but all were certain it presented a potential safety risk.
Our investigators do remember several different times when it happened, Delgado said. About two years ago, there was active surveillance being done by our task forces, and there was someone who was actively listening to our radio traffic and feeding information to the target.
Another time, she said, officers responding to a shooting were approached by a woman who had been listening to the call on her phone.
Its so easy now to download an app on your phone, so thats a huge safety issue too, she said.
Although state legislators have twice considered bills that would prohibit or regulate police radio encryption, both bills failed to pass, Roberts said. Police radio encryption continues to be adopted across Colorado.
This looks like an unstoppable trend, he said.
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