As of the early morning hours on Dec. 2, Douglas County law enforcement radios faded from public access. Channels once available for anyone to hear now broadcast a stream of garbled talk and indistinguishable chatter that sporadically break up stretches of otherwise silent airwaves.
The agencies' channels are officially encrypted, a move law enforcement leaders say is intended to shield citizens' private information from public dissemination and to protect officers. It is part of a trend among first responders along the Front Range and nation — a trend that has raised alarms among media experts.
Just to the north of Douglas County, the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office and at least some local police departments in the county plan to encrypt by mid-January, a spokeswoman for the sheriff's office confirmed. In nearby Denver and Aurora, police departments have already blocked scanner access.
The Castle Rock, Parker and Lone Tree police departments and Elbert County law enforcement encrypted with the Douglas County Sheriff's Office on Dec. 2.
A South Metro Fire Rescue spokesman said the department remains unencrypted and has no plans to block its communications.
The Douglas County Sheriff's Office has offered some local media organizations access to encrypted channels, including those of the local police departments.
On Nov. 25, 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 encrypted channels, and only "legitimate" media outlets, as determined by the sheriff's office, would be able to do so, the letter states.
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.
While media outlets would be able to hear encrypted channels if they sign the document, members of the public will not have that access. They 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, such as if an investigation is still open.
The Douglas County Sheriff's Office piloted encrypting some but not all its channels after the death of one of its deputies, Zackari Parrish, during an incident that drew a multi-agency response to Highlands Ranch in December 2017.
They have since decided asking officers to switch from public to encrypted channels during serious incidents is too dangerous, Nicholson-Kluth said, and they fear some criminals use scanners to track law enforcement.
Media experts have long warned that radio encryption diminishes transparency toward the public and hinders journalists' ability to report news swiftly.
Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, told Colorado Community Media in August he understands law enforcement's arguments in favor of encryption, but that serious concerns for transparency and the public's right to know back arguments against encrypting.
Colorado Press Association CEO Jill Farschman said there is no statistically significant data showing unencrypted channels are dangerous, “despite a lot of fearmongering.” More encryption means less transparency, she said.
“It means the public will be increasingly subjected to information that comes from non-objective sources such as public information offices,” she said.
Farschman said law enforcement agencies in other states have successfully used encrypted channels in urgent situations and open channels on a regular basis for some time.
“The argument that that's such an arduous process, it just doesn't hold water,” she said.
Josh Hans, spokesman for the Parker Police Department, said scanners often air personal details like a crime victim's date of birth and address that is not public information. There's no value in making that available on scanners, he said.
“We have long been weighing the balance with the media and the public's right to know, at the same time, balancing it with the public's privacy, more specifically victim privacy information, as well as officer safety,” Hans said.
Farschman said the Colorado Press Association was not aware of citizens expressing concern for their own privacy on scanner traffic.
“It's kind of a solution searching for a problem,” she said.
Nicholson-Kluth and Hans said the amount of mental health and medical information sent over scanners is increasing, furthering agencies' desire to encrypt.
“We firmly believe the media will be responsible with this information, that's why we still want the media to have access,” Hans said. “We feel like by allowing the media to still have access to our radio control, we're still granting the Fourth Estate the ability to do their job and monitor us.”
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