BUGGING THE POLICE
David Triska has been fooling around with radios for more than four decades, ever since he got an old-fashioned crystal set when he was nine years old. Now, though, the King Soopers truck driver's lifelong hobby has landed him in hot water with the Denver Police Department, which says he may have crossed the line between radio buff and wiretapper.
Last month police raided Triska's home in Federal Heights and seized a number of radios, cables and other electronic equipment, claiming that Triska had "infiltrated" the communications system Denver police officers use to talk with dispatchers and one another. Triska has not yet been charged with any crime, but court documents and interviews with police make it clear the department believes he violated felony eavesdropping laws.
Triska, who insists that listening to police communications is completely legal, is furious. He's hired an attorney to get his equipment back and has fired off outraged letters of complaint to a slew of officials, including Mayor Wellington Webb, Governor Roy Romer and U.S. Senator Hank Brown.
"They're the gestapo of Colorado," Triska, 51, says of the Denver police. "They want complete control over who listens to their radio systems."
Police say they are still investigating Triska, so they can't discuss details of the case. But they hint that he isn't quite the victimized hobbyist he makes himself out to be. According to a search-warrant affidavit, for instance, Triska told an undercover police officer that he illegally installed cable-television hookups for friends so they wouldn't have to pay cable fees to TCI.
"He's not Mr. Innocent," says Denver police detective Richard Mumford.
Still, a spokesman for the Federal Communications Commission says that, in general, listening to unscrambled police transmissions is permitted under federal law. And the owner of a local radio-equipment company familiar with Triska's case says the city may have a difficult time showing Triska has committed a criminal act.
"They're going to be hard-pressed to prove anything in court," says Richard Merkle of STI Mobile Communications Inc. "I've got a sneaking feeling that before it's over, the city's going to drop the whole thing."
To understand the case, it helps to know something about police radio communications.
Until fairly recently, most police and fire departments used conventional radio systems, which were easy for members of the public to eavesdrop on with inexpensive scanners available from Radio Shack and other electronics stores.
Under the old system, a police department the size of Denver's might have fifteen different communications frequencies. Each patrol precinct would get a channel on which all transmissions within that precinct would occur. Those who wanted to listen in simply had to tune their radio to that channel's frequency--and they'd hear everything that was going on.
The problem with such systems was that they were very inefficient. A heavily used channel in a high-crime precinct might become overwhelmed with traffic, while other channels in other areas sat silent and unused.
In recent years, therefore, many cities have converted to "trunked" radio systems, under which a whole range of frequencies is available to all precincts all the time. When a patrolman picks up the radio in his car to speak to another officer ten blocks away, a computer assigns the transmission to whatever frequency is available. The same thing happens for the reply, which may come back to the patrolman on a different frequency altogether.
"It's a more efficient use of the spectrum," says Sandy Lugger of Ericsson Inc., the company that manufactures Denver's trunked system.
Trunked systems are a bane to scanner enthusiasts, however. A two-minute dialogue between two officers might bounce across a dozen different frequencies, making it extremely difficult to follow. Diehard eavesdroppers, therefore, have had to graduate from scanners to more sophisticated "trunked radios," which can be programmed to track individual conversations as they flit across the airwaves.
But such programming into a police department's so-called "talk groups" is no easy matter: It's necessary to have special, highly expensive software normally available only to police or other owners of the trunked system in question.
The Denver Police Department installed its Ericsson trunked system in 1990. At the time, the department agreed to make fifteen talk groups available to tow companies, news agencies and any other owners of trunked radios who wanted to monitor communications. In the interest of security, however, it withheld certain "covert" talk groups--such as those used by narcotics detectives--to ensure that the integrity of investigations wasn't compromised.
David Triska's sin was that he was able to figure out how to program in all the department's talk groups, including those the police had decided were off-limits. Triska said it wasn't hard--most of the equipment he needed he ordered through the mail from Ericsson. He won't say how he got his hands on the software, but he says that, too, was a pretty simple feat.
"It was just obtained; I can't give you the individual's name," Triska says, adding, "I'm not the only one out here with software. It's all over."
Triska says he had no evil intentions. He just likes to keep tabs on what's happening on the streets of the city. "Whatever was out there, I wanted to listen to," Triska says. "Because it's not against the law."
The Colorado wiretapping law does specifically allow monitoring of all police radio communications that are "readily accessible to the general public." It is illegal to intercept "scrambled" transmissions, but any talk that isn't encrypted is fair game for eavesdroppers, the law says.
The same holds true under federal law, says Chris Haskell, a spokesman in the FCC's Denver office. "Unscrambled stuff can be listened to, as far as we're concerned," Haskell says.
The question, Denver authorities say, is whether Triska violated the state's "readily accessible" rule. Deputy District Attorney Lamar Simms, while declining to comment specifically on the case, notes that it takes "extraordinary" steps to be able to listen to Denver's covert talk groups.
"There are people that would love to have these channels," Simms says. "The point is, they're not supposed to."
Triska, though, points out that it's possible to hear any individual police transmission--even one from a covert talk group--with a conventional scanner; it's just the complete conversations that are difficult to follow. In his book, that means that all police talk must be considered "readily accessible" and that taking additional steps to track conversations--like programming a trunked radio yourself--is entirely within the law.
After getting a tip, Denver police began investigating Triska in February. According to the search-warrant affidavit, Detective Mumford posed as the owner of a towing company, called Triska and asked him if he would program a trunked radio so it carried all of Denver's talk groups. Triska told Mumford he could have it done for a $600 fee.
"At one time during the conversation, Triska talked about illegally hooking up cable TV in Denver and bypassing the TCI cable system for people that he knew so they wouldn't have to pay for service," the affidavit says.
Police searched Triska's mobile home on Federal Boulevard on March 9, walking away with several radios, monitors, notebooks and other equipment.
Triska, who denies he ever did cable hookups for anyone, now fears he may be charged with wiretapping, a class 6 felony. He blames his plight on Larry Fenstemaker, head of the Denver Police Department's Electronic Engineering Bureau. Fenstemaker, who Triska says is known as "the Fuhrer" by local radio buffs, is carrying out a "personal vendetta" against him, Triska says.
Fenstemaker declines to discuss the case. "I'm not allowed to comment about it," he says.
Triska has vowed to sue the police if they don't return his equipment. He says the fact that he hasn't been charged with a crime yet--more than a month after the search--is an indication that authorities know they're on shaky legal ground in the case.
"If they've got so much on me, how come I haven't been arrested?" Triska says. "It's harassment from the word go. There's no two ways about it.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.