The Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office will soon block the public from listening to its radio communications.
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The move comes because suspects “often know we're coming to calls — the bad guys know where we are, they know where we're staging. We just don't want criminals to know (what we're doing),” said Deborah Sherman, sheriff's office spokeswoman. “We've seen, in the recent past, strip-mall burglars that had scanners in their cars.”
The need to communicate with other agencies that have also encrypted their radio traffic drove the decision as well, Sherman said.
Other agencies across Colorado and the nation also have blocked access to police radios — often referred to as “scanners,” devices that pick up law enforcement conversations in the field — in recent months and years. Media experts have decried the trend as a loss of transparency.
Law enforcement officials, on the other hand, have cited safety concerns for officers as a main reason to encrypt their radio channels.
Switching between public and encrypted channels on an as-needed basis is difficult, according to the Douglas County Sheriff's Office. Officers have described changing channels in high-pressure situations as cumbersome and stressful.
The shooting death of Deputy Zackari Parrish is an example cited. Parrish was killed in December 2017 in an incident that drew a heavy, multi-agency police response to Highlands Ranch after a gunman opened fire on multiple deputies.
Parrish was injured and left unresponsive, unable to evacuate the gunman's apartment. That left the gunman with Parrish's radio, allowing the suspect to obtain information. Encryption would not have helped during the Parrish shooting, where communications were compromised, but it demonstrated the difficulty in switching channels from the field, the Douglas County Sheriff's Office has told Colorado Community Media.
Asking officers to change channels in life-threatening situations is nearly impossible, Castle Rock Police Chief Jack Cauley said in a previous interview with CCM.
As of Dec. 2, the Castle Rock, Parker and Lone Tree police departments and Elbert County law enforcement encrypted, along with the Douglas County Sheriff's Office. The Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office will encrypt by mid-January, Sherman said. That includes the “primary” channel — the one that media and the public generally listen to — as well as others for special operations, SWAT and investigative matters, she said. Arapahoe will encrypt nine channels in all.
At least some municipalities in Arapahoe County will likely also encrypt their police radio traffic by mid-January, according to Sherman.
The Aurora Police Department encrypted its radio traffic in 2016. In a move widely lamented by Denver-area media, the Denver Police Department's radio communications went dark at the end of July 2019.
Aurora and other departments' move to encrypt was a main factor in the Arapahoe sheriff office's decision, Sherman said, but she acknowledged that the sheriff's office bought new equipment that enabled it to communicate with Aurora police in 2016.
South Metro Fire Rescue updated its radios earlier this year so firefighters can communicate with law enforcement partners who use encryption, even though South Metro Fire itself doesn't encrypt, according to spokesman Eric Hurst.
“All South Metro radio traffic is `in the clear,' and there are no plans to encrypt our radio channels at this time,” Hurst said.
Sherman said it is possible for the sheriff's office to communicate with agencies that have encrypted without the sheriff's office encrypting its own radio traffic, but doing so wouldn't address concerns of officer safety that have generally driven agencies' decisions to encrypt.
“The reason everyone's going at the same time in Arapahoe County is so we can all touch our radios once and plug in all our encryption keys,” said Sherman, adding that to accommodate changes in Denver, Aurora and Douglas County, “it makes sense to follow suit and encrypt our channels at the same time.”
The Littleton Police Department's reason for encrypting soon — around the start of the new year — has similar motivations, including officer safety, victim privacy and agency cooperation, Cmdr. Trent Cooper said.
"Due to the fact that most agencies are moving forward with encryption, we need to as well to be able to maintain interoperability and be able to communicate with other agencies, particularly on a multi-agency critical incident response," said Cooper, Littleton police's spokesman.
Media experts have long held concerns that encryption diminishes accountability for law enforcement and the ability for journalists to do their jobs, and ultimately leaves them at the mercy of law enforcement to report incidents.
Colorado Press Association CEO Jill Farschman said more encryption means less transparency.
“It means the public will be increasingly subjected to information that comes from non-objective sources such as public information offices,” she said.
Arapahoe sheriff's personnel carried out a SWAT response to an incident at South Ivy Street and East Maplewood Avenue Nov. 30 in Centennial, but the sheriff's office did not share information through a news release or social media.
"It would be impossible to tweet out the hundreds of calls we can possibly receive in a single day," said Sherman, adding that immediate neighbors at that SWAT response were informed and told to shelter in place. "We use our Twitter account for different reasons — including to alert the public about situations when their lives may be in danger and what actions they need to protect themselves. The SWAT call on Nov. 30 did not pose a threat to the community at large."
Arapahoe County Sheriff Tyler Brown said although immediate access to live information on the scanner will close, the public isn't shut out from information about the sheriff's office.
"Our records are open for them to inspect," Brown said. "That still hasn’t changed the process of allowing people to request records. It’s an encryption for this immediate access — so we’re not hiding anything. It could be something that is beneficial in the preservation of someone else’s privacy as well as the safety of deputies."
Even without public scanner access, area residents may still receive updates from news media that may be given scanner access.
The Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office has plans to help media outlets access scanner traffic despite the encryption. The office will prepare an agreement called a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, for media outlets, Brown said.
Denver police and local media outlets for months negotiated an agreement that would allow newsrooms to have access to encrypted scanners, but to no avail. The Denver Post reported in July that a proposed agreement restricted how newsrooms could report information heard over scanners. The proposal would have allowed any city representative to examine records of scanner traffic held by the news organizations, in one example.
On Nov. 25, Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock sent a letter to local media explaining his decision to encrypt and included a memorandum of understanding, or MOU. News organizations must sign the MOU to access the channels of law enforcement agencies in Douglas and Elbert counties, and only "legitimate" media outlets, as determined by the sheriff's office, would be able to do so, the letter says.
Of the eight media organizations offered access, none had signed the contract as of Dec. 2, Undersheriff Holly Nicholson-Kluth said. Colorado Community Media received and reviewed the MOU but had not made a decision on whether to sign it as of the reporting of this story.
Members of the public can receive recordings of radio traffic through a public records request after an incident occurs, but their requests would be subject to Colorado's open records laws and could be denied if an investigation is still open, for example.
A bill introduced by state Rep. Kevin Van Winkle, R-Highlands Ranch, that would have prohibited agencies from encrypting except in certain circumstances, like tactical or investigative situations, died in committee during the 2018 Colorado legislative session.
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