Steamboat police keep radios public amid statewide encryption trend
March 14, 2019
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The Denver Police Department will soon be among more than two dozen agencies across Colorado that encrypts all of their radio traffic, making it difficult or impossible for people, including journalists, to listen in on breaking news.
While local law enforcement has not yet considered encrypting scanner traffic in Routt County anytime soon, the growing trend has created a ripple effect that many fear could restrict the media’s ability to alert people about important, sometimes life-threatening, incidents in their communities.
The issue has pitted the public's right to know against safety concerns from law enforcement agencies who say radio traffic publicly broadcasts sensitive information that could put citizens and officers at risk.
Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen told the Denver Post that encryption could begin as early as mid-April. The department would join at least 28 other Colorado agencies that have already encrypted their radio traffic, including Longmont, Fort Collins and Aurora.
Concerns from the public
Jeffrey Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, has been advocating against this wave of encryption.
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He has worked with Denver Police and members of the Colorado Press Association to negotiate a deal that would enable news organizations to obtain encrypted radios and continue listening in on traffic.
The problem, according to Roberts, is that Colorado's two public records laws do not protect against radio encryption.
"There's nothing in open records laws that would apply to someone's ability or right to listen to police radio traffic," he said.
Until recently, journalists relied on an implicit agreement with law enforcement that accessing police radios provided a public service. Reporters could inform people about potentially dangerous events in their communities, like a car accident blocking certain roads or an active shooter roaming someone's neighborhood.
"Listening to scanner traffic is a news-gathering practice that's been going on for decades," Roberts said. "Reporters need this information to know where to go to cover things that are breaking news."
John Vahlenkamp, managing editor at the Longmont Times-Call newspaper, has already faced difficulties in reporting time-sensitive news following radio encryption.
The Longmont Police Department began encrypting their radios in October without warning the public, including journalists. Vahlenkamp was shocked to come into the newsroom and not hear the usual buzz of police reports over the radio.
"We're so used to knowing what's going on based on hearing the scanner," he said.
Vahlenkamp described an incident several weeks after police encrypted their radios in which two people stole a car that they crashed in Longmont after running a red light. They then fled the scene and ended up in a school neighborhood.
The newspaper knew nothing about the incident until other agencies got involved that do not encrypt their radios.
"We were fortunate to have heard something on a different channel that at least brought it to our attention," Vahlenkamp said.
Without that stroke of luck, the public would not have known about the criminals at large until Longmont police released a statement. The lack of oversight worries Vahlenkamp.
"It's hard to know how much this limits your reporting when you don't know what you're missing," he said.
The Longmont Police Department eventually scheduled a meeting with Vahlenkamp in January. Officers presented him with an encrypted radio and a contract that would restrict how reporters could use the information they learned from scanner traffic.
Vahlenkamp had to turn them down.
"We did not want to sign something that would limit the future reporting that we could do," he said.
They were eventually able to work out a verbal agreement, which essentially established that the newspaper could have an encrypted radio if reporters used discretion with information that could put victims or officers in danger.
Concerns from police
Steamboat Springs Police Chief Cory Christensen explained that anyone can buy a radio that picks up police scanner traffic, as long as it is not encrypted. Most agencies, including those in Routt County, encrypt certain tactical events like hostage situations or barricaded gunmen.
In addition to journalists, certain members of the public tune in to the scanners to get the scoop on interesting incidents around town.
But sometimes, people use radios for nefarious purposes.
"We are finding more and more often that bad guys are using the radio traffic," Christensen said.
He has heard stories of officers ready to execute an arrest warrant, but the suspects were gone by the time officers arrived because they heard about it over the radio.
It is also not uncommon for officials to broadcast sensitive information about people, particularly victims, that could put them at risk if others can listen in.
Christensen recounted a night when he was working as an officer in Fort Collins and came across a younger couple looking for some intimate privacy. Christensen made contact with a man and woman, collected their IDs and broadcast their names over the scanner.
Ten minutes later, he got a call from dispatch. The woman's father had been listening to the situation unfold on his personal radio and demanded to know what was going on with his adult daughter.
Christensen added that despite concerns over privacy, he has not considered encrypting his department's radios.
"I don't plan on opening up that conversation," he said.
A contentious issue
Christensen served on the Fort Collins Police Department when it encrypted its radios. Officers were more upfront about the switch and gave encrypted radios to media organizations for $100 each. That is a good deal, considering such radios can cost thousands of dollars, a big burden to already cash-strapped newspapers.
Similar to the case in Longmont, journalists had to agree to certain conditions and sign a release if they wanted a radio.
All of these negotiations illustrate the power that law enforcement agencies carry in determining who can listen to scanner traffic after they encrypt radios.
But as social media democratizes information, some citizen journalists not associated with a traditional news organization have gained notoriety.
An example is Priscilla Villarreal, a woman in Laredo, Texas, who publishes breaking news exclusively on Facebook, where she has more than 119,000 followers.
A recent article from the New York Times called Villarreal "arguably the most influential journalist in Laredo," a town of 260,000, though she is entirely self-employed. It is unclear if she would have any negotiating power with law enforcement if she wanted an encrypted radio.
Jill Farschman, CEO of the Colorado Press Association, worries that these negotiations create a tenuous relationship between journalists and law enforcement.
"What happens when (journalists) report critically on the police department?" she asked.
Farschman fears that in such circumstances, law enforcement could revoke reporters' ability to hear scanner traffic. She echoed Vahlenkamp's concerns that as more agencies encrypt their radios, journalists will face progressively tougher obstacles trying to cover breaking news.
"Once your broadcast reporter is no longer standing in front of the scene on the morning news, little by little, what you're getting instead is a tweet from the police department," Farschman said. "Those aren't the same thing. Let's not pretend like they are."