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Coming to a city near you: Denver PD considers encrypting radio traffic

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.