Denver police radios crackled Wednesday afternoon with a variety of calls for service: a father calling on a combative son, teens smoking marijuana in an alley, a car crash.
Soon, however, the public will no longer be able to tune into the daily goings-on of Denver police as the department plans to encrypt all of its radio traffic in the coming months, though news organizations will have access if they sign agreements with the city.
Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen said the switch could happen as early as mid-April, with the department joining dozens of other law enforcement agencies across the state that have opted to block access to their communications.
Pazen said the move will protect personal information such as addresses and phone numbers from being distributed to police-scanner listeners — and keep suspects from listening in. The decision represents the “best balance of community safety and transparency,” he said.RELATED: Denver police could be next to go silent as more Colorado agencies encrypt their radio traffic
News organizations will have to sign a memorandum of understanding with the city before gaining access, and the city attorney’s office was working this week to finalize what that document will say, Pazen said.
But Jill Farschman, CEO of the Colorado Press Association, said such agreements are not a tenable long-term solution to the ongoing trend across the state of agencies encrypting radios. She credited Denver police for proactively reaching out, but said that it seemed that the administration never considered not encrypting.
“It wasn’t really a negotiation,” she said.
Which media outlets will get access?
Journalists use scanners to monitor police activity, report on breaking news and inform their reporting. For example, The Denver Post first learned about a standoff Jan. 27 at a house where a suspect shot two police officers by listening to the scanner, prompting reporters to quickly respond to the scene.
Denver police’s change comes as the department completes a new 911 communications center and distributes new radios to officers. Pazen said the department hopes to switch to encryption in mid-April, though it could take longer to get the new gear operational and train officers how to use it. Denver police previously used encrypted channels for investigations and other sensitive situations.
The police department met multiple times with representatives from the news media before making the decision, Pazen said. When it comes to determining which media groups will be granted access to encrypted scanners, the chief declined to say where he draws the line at who or what qualifies as a news organization.
“We’re not going down that road,” he said. “We did not want to define who the media is.”
And neither is the Colorado Press Association, Farschman said. While the association has standards for its own membership, it will not take on the responsibility of deciding who gets access to police departments’ encrypted radio traffic, she said.
Technological advances have made it easier and cheaper for law enforcement agencies to encrypt their radios, experts previously told The Denver Post .
“I see this as something that the entire region could follow,” Pazen said.
A growing practice in Colorado
At least 28 other Colorado agencies have already encrypted their radio traffic, including Aurora, Lakewood and Fort Collins.
John Vahlenkamp, the newspaper’s managing editor, reached out to the police chief and stated his concerns with how the encryption would affect reporters’ abilities to cover the news. Vahlenkamp and others from the paper, which is owned by the same company that owns The Denver Post, arranged a meeting with the chief to talk.
“We showed up at this meeting and they had a radio and a contract,” Vahlenkamp said.
The newspaper’s leaders pored over the contract but ultimately decided they wouldn’t sign it because they didn’t want any restrictions on what their reporters could do with information gleaned from the scanner, he said.
“I would honestly rather not have a scanner than sign a deal that we can’t keep,” Vahlenkamp said.
The paper later agreed to honor a verbal agreement to be judicious about what scanner information is published, which is similar to the ethical guidelines journalists usually use when reporting using radio traffic, Vahlenkamp said.
Farschman said the policy of giving news organizations access to encrypted radio traffic is not sustainable. It can also be costly if newsrooms are expected to purchase their own equipment, like Denver’s news organizations likely will have to do. She said estimates for the cost of such scanners range between $3,400 and $9,000.
“This is an untenable, piecemeal approach,” she said.
Asking the right questions
Colorado’s two public records laws do not explicitly grant access to police radio traffic, said Jeffrey Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.
Roberts was part of the radio discussions with Denver police and said the group discussed multiple possible arrangements, but that ultimately the contract solution seemed to be “the only way (Denver police) would be willing to go.”
“Not having a scanner limits a news organization’s ability to do its job to pursue stories, to ask the right questions, to know where to go to report a story, to get a sense of how an operation occurred and to alert the public when there are immediate things happening,” said Roberts, who worked for The Denver Post for more than two decades.
Concerns from amateur radio operators spurred a bill last year in the Colorado General Assembly that would have banned law enforcement agencies from encrypting all of their channels. Police agencies opposed the bill, which ultimately died in committee .
No such bill has been introduced thus far in the 2019 session, though Farschman said the association plans to pursue legislation to create statewide standards in the future.
“Our big concern is these police departments are presenting their public information officers as if they’re the same as journalists,” she said.