Denver PD considers encrypting radio traffic
“We need to balance public safety needs and the very real need for transparency,” Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen said
By Elise Schmelzer
The Denver Post
DENVER — The public may no longer be able to listen to Denver police radio communications if the department moves forward with a proposal to encrypt all of its radios in the coming months, the latest in a string of Colorado law enforcement agencies to consider blocking the public from listening to officers and dispatchers communicate in real time.
A final decision about encryption has yet to be made, Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen said. Police need the encryption to keep personal information about victims or people who call 911 from being broadcast on publicly accessible channels, he said. Police have also found suspects who have used scanners to monitor police communications to commit crime and avoid arrest, he said.
“We need to balance these public safety needs and the very real need for transparency,” Pazen said.
But encryption, if implemented, would hinder news reporters’ ability to monitor breaking news situations and reduce news organizations’ ability to act as watchdogs over police, representatives for news media and advocates for public access to governmental records said. As an increasing number of Colorado agencies encrypt, the public loses oversight over the law enforcement agencies they fund, they said.
“The department becomes a filter for what gets out there and what doesn’t get out there,” said Jeffrey Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.
Denver is the latest Colorado police agency to consider encrypting their communications as new technology and phone apps make it easier than ever for the public to listen. At least 28 agencies in the state — including five in the Denver metro area — already encrypt all of their radio traffic.
Radio encryption is nothing new and is commonly used during surveillance or drug operations, said Rick Myers, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. But new digital radio technology makes it easier and cheaper to block outside listeners.
“It is problematic during a time when policing is trying to rebuild community trust to introduce elements that create barriers with the public,” Myers said in an email. “However, the balance must be officer safety, protecting privacy rights … and effective delivery of service.”
“This isn’t a black and white, right or wrong issue,” he said. “It is complex.”
Striking a balance
Police in Thornton, Arvada, Aurora, Lakewood, Westminster, Greeley and Fort Collins have already encrypted their radios. Police scanners in Longmont went silent at the end of September while the police tested a “pilot program” of the encryption. The pilot program has no end date. Broomfield police submitted a memo to their city council in September outlining their plans to encrypt. Loveland also has considered encryption.
No specific incident prompted Denver police to consider encryption, Pazen said. Instead, department leaders thought the opening of a new 911 communications center would be a good time to implement the change, if desired. Denver police already use encrypted channels for investigations and other sensitive operations, but most communication takes place on the public transmissions.
Pazen reached out to his commanders while considering the decision and asked whether public access to radio traffic had created challenges for them.
Wanted persons and suspects have been caught using scanner technology, he said. And information about victims involved in sensitive crimes, like domestic violence, was broadcast.
“I was a little bit surprised that we had many different examples of how this information is out there being used,” he said.
Pazen acknowledged that encrypting the radio channels would create concerns about transparency, he said. That’s why he invited representatives from news associations to a meeting on Monday to discuss potential solutions. He said it was premature to discuss what some of those solutions might be.
“We’re not just forcing this through,” he said.
If the department moves forward with encryption, the radios would go silent to the public in the next six months as the new 911 communications center opens and the radios are programmed, Pazen said.
The Denver Fire Department is not planning to encrypt its tactical radio channels used for daily operations, department spokesman Greg Pixley said. However, firefighters would have to use the police department’s encrypted channels if they want to communicate between the two agencies.
The recent growth in agencies using encryption is due to two factors, Myers, of the chiefs association, said.
Agencies are switching to modern digital systems that make encryption cheaper and easier. Simultaneously, the introduction of hundreds of smart phone apps that allow people to listen to radio traffic through the internet anywhere in the country means that more people are listening in, Myers said.
The discussion around encryption is not new to law enforcement, said Chris Johnson, director of County Sheriffs of Colorado. He personally opposed switching to encryption while he worked as sheriff of Otero County because he believed “the public had a right to hear part of the traffic,” he said. But he also understood the argument that some information shouldn’t be transmitted.
“There’s an argument on both sides in my personal opinion,” he said, noting that the sheriffs association had not taken an official stance on the issue.
Nothing in particular prompted Broomfield police to seek encryption, police spokeswoman Joleen Reefe said. Instead, it was a culmination of events, including when news reporters in 2017 used information from police radios in stories about the murder of a 4-year-old boy before investigators were ready to release that information, she said.
If Broomfield police encrypt their radios — which would cost about $230,000 — reporters and the public can instead look to the department’s social media for information, Reefe said.
“The information will be put out in a timely manner on our social media channels,” Reefe said. “In my mind, timely can be anywhere from 10 minutes to 35 or 40 minutes”
But relying on official news releases, whether on social media or email, is problematic for news reporters, media representatives said.
Since Longmont’s radios were encrypted in late September, Longmont Times-Call reporter Madeline St. Amour has struggled to track fast-moving public safety issues in her community. The Longmont newspaper is owned by the same parent company that owns The Denver Post.
Earlier this month, a man pointed a gun at a woman in Boulder and stole her car. The man then drove to Longmont, where law enforcement noticed the car and attempted to pull it over. Instead, the driver fled and then crashed into another vehicle in a residential area before running away through the neighborhood. Longmont High School and a hospital were put on lock out. Police set up a perimeter and searched the area, but didn’t find the suspect, who has not been arrested.
The only reason St. Amour knew about the chase and manhunt is because she picked up traffic on the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office radios. Had they not responded, she might not have known until police posted about it 40 minutes later.
“I’ve probably missed some things I don’t know about,” she said. “And there’s definitely things we got late.”
Scanners have long been used by reporters to monitor breaking news and respond to incidents quickly, said Jill Farschman, CEO of the Colorado Press Association. The public expects relevant information quickly. While news organizations do not typically report directly off of police radio traffic without confirmation — as is policy at The Denver Post — the chatter can help reporters know what questions to ask about an incident.
“We don’t expect to find out about a fire or a police shooting or a natural disaster three days later,” she said.
Agencies communicating through social media and press releases is helpful but does not replace professional reporting, she said. For example, if a police officer shoots and kills someone, it’s important that a reporter be able to be at the scene and ask questions, she said. Otherwise, information is released to the public on the police department’s timetable. The department also then has more control over what information is released.
“People on the face of it may be quite satisfied with a press release,” she said. “But when things get dicey and if there are conflicting accounts, or any kind of controversy, that’s not going to be the case.”
Relying on departments to post information on social media or in a news release also allows them to choose what is worth telling the public, said Roberts with the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.
“What if they don’t?” he said. “The department becomes a filter for what gets out there and what doesn’t get out there.”
Colorado legislators considered a bill earlier this year that would have set guidelines for encryption, but it ultimately failed in the face of law enforcement opposition.
The bill would have banned law enforcement agencies from encrypting all of their channels and also would have made it a crime to listen to police radio traffic while committing a crime.
It’s possible a similar bill to create a standard statewide policy could be introduced in the upcoming legislative session, Farschman said. The representative who sponsored the bill, Republican Rep. Kevin Van Winkle, did not respond for a request for comment for this story.
Other cities have tried different methods to address the concerns of police and the public. Police in Lincoln, Neb., published an unedited online feed that was delayed by 10 minutes. Some cities, like Pueblo, gave news organizations scanners that allowed them to listen to the encrypted radios.
“That certainly helps, because the news media are the eyes and ears of the public,” Roberts said. “It also raises other issues. Who gets those? Who’s a journalist? It’s not always a question that’s easy to answer.”
Roberts said he wasn’t sure how laws that protect public access to government records applied to live radio communications. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press wrote in 2012 that there was no federal law protecting the public’s access to police radio channels.
Along with reporters, encryption also would block an avid community of radio enthusiasts who tune in to track police activity in their neighborhoods.
Curt Mann is a scanner enthusiast and runs a business programming radios. He said it’s hard to tell how many people in the Denver metro area have their own personal scanners, but said it must be in the thousands. And that doesn’t count those who use online feeds.
Mann, an Aurora Fire Department dispatcher who retired 10 years ago, said police departments benefit from having people listen to their radio communications. It helps people understand the day-to-day work of police and to see how busy they are.
“Would you hire an officer that you couldn’t supervise?” he said. “That’s what they’re asking the public to do. They’re asking for us to pay them to do a job that we can’t supervise.”
“These departments are all saying, ‘We want to have transparency,’” Mann said. “Saying it and doing it are different things.”