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Bill With Bipartisan Support Would Increase Law Enforcement Radio Transparency

Emergency and police vehicles gathered near the STEM School Highlands Ranch campus after the May 7 shooting.
Emergency and police vehicles gathered near the STEM School Highlands Ranch campus after the May 7 shooting.
9News via YouTube

In May 2019, Noelle Phillips was sitting in the Denver Post newsroom when she and her team of reporters heard on the police scanner that something terrible was happening at the STEM School Highlands Ranch.

"I could hear the tone of the deputies' voices and I heard, 'Yes, we've got juveniles shot.' I think ankle or leg or something. I knew we had to flood the zone with reporters," Phillips recalls.

Journalists have been using police scanners for their reporting for decades. These devices, which can tune into police communications, generally don't have access to tactical or investigative channels. But they give reporters the chance to hear calls to dispatch, which can help inform them about how to approach a developing story.

After learning the first details of the STEM school shooting through the police scanner, reporters from the Post went to the school and confirmed with law enforcement officers that a shooting had taken place. Then they published their first story about the shooting. Without the scanner, the Post and other daily news outlets wouldn't have known about it until local law enforcement tweeted about it, meaning precious minutes would have elapsed before the media could notify parents and the public about what was happening.

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But since last summer, police scanners for journalists and the general public have been silent, after the Denver Police Department encrypted its radio communications. DPD and local news outlets negotiated over a potential agreement that would have allowed journalists to tune into some police communications, but a deal was never solidified.

"It’s a trend that is accelerating, as many agencies have encrypted, and it doesn’t seem like this is going to reverse or stop anytime soon without something like legislation," says Jeff Roberts of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

Although that trend is likely to continue, a bill that will be heard in the House Transportation and Local Government committee at the State Capitol on March 4 would increase media access to police communications, even those that are encrypted.

"Members of the public have the right to know what’s happening in our communities," says Representative Kevin Van Winkle, a Highlands Ranch Republican who is sponsoring the bill. "We have a government by and for the people. They work for the public, not the other way around."

Van Winkle's bill, which he's co-sponsoring with Representative Jovan Melton, a Democrat from Aurora, would require any law enforcement agency that encrypts its radio to work with media outlets and members of the public on a formal policy that would allow for some access to channels. For example, the two sides could agree to a ten-minute delay in radio transmission, or law enforcement agencies could offer special radios for purchase that have access to the encrypted channel.

"It’s asking the local departments who do go fully secretive and fully dark to come up with something reasonable to still be a transparent entity and not just be completely secretive and completely in the dark," says Van Winkle, who's promoted bills in previous legislative sessions that would have largely prohibited law enforcement radio encryption.

Any policy regarding access to encrypted radio communications would have to avoid "imposing unreasonable and burdensome limitations" on news outlets and members of the public, which refers to the types of stipulations put forth by DPD when negotiating with local news outlets last year. In particular, the department wanted news outlets to be on the hook for any lawsuits regarding news reported from scanner information. And the City of Denver wanted to be able to audit journalistic work connected to scanner information. No news outlets agreed to these terms.

"We don’t want to endanger lives. We don’t want to make any police chief do something that he or she doesn’t want to do, but they at least need to be willing to recognize that they’re shutting off the media by fully encrypting," says Van Winkle.

He and Melton are optimistic about the bill's chances this year. Van Winkle past bills didn't have a Democrat co-sponsor, but this time around, his legislation has bipartisan support. "It is supposed to be a middle ground. Much more compromise," he says.

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