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Longmont Police Scanners Go Silent for Unannounced “pilot Project”

October 11, 2018

Communications training officer Luis Ortiz works in dispatch Wednesday at the Safety and Justice Center in Longmont. Longmont police have begun dispatching officers using an encrypted channel, which means the public cannot listen to police communication using a scanner or cellphone app.

Longmont police are now dispatching through an encrypted channel, which means the public cannot listen to police communication via scanners and scanner cellphone apps.

The decision comes after concerns for officer safety and victim privacy, according to Deputy Chief Jeff Satur, though it’s not clear how much these issues have directly affected Longmont police.

The decision was made internally and did not require approval from the City Council as it is an operational change, according to city spokesman Rigo Leal.

Satur emphasized that the change is a pilot project that may be adjusted in the future, but at this time there is no scheduled end date.

While encrypting main dispatch channels is an increasing trend in law enforcement, associations representing the media oppose the idea, saying it reduces transparency and makes it more difficult for reporters to do their jobs.

Safety, privacy concerns

There was no one thing that triggered Longmont police to pull their main dispatch line from the public, Satur said.

Rather, a buildup of concerns over victim privacy and officer safety spurred the decision. Often, victims’ information or location will go out over the scanner, Satur said, which can be especially sensitive in a domestic violence or sexual assault case.

However, no victim has complained to Longmont police about that specific issue, Satur said. Officers have noticed scanners playing when conducting traffic stops or responding to domestic situations at homes, he said, and realized what it could mean to them.

The possibility of criminals monitoring scanner traffic, especially while out on a crime spree, also made Longmont police consider encryption, he said. While the department has not created a report on how many cases have involved criminals listening to scanners, Satur said he had heard of it happening in at least five cases.

“With the advent of the cell phone apps, scanners are now available for free and anybody could put them on their phone,” he said.

When asked if he thought encryption would affect the department’s transparency, Satur said it would not. He cited the department’s policy of sending a daily report of calls for service that includes some press narratives and of publishing information about high interest cases on its social media accounts as examples of its transparency.

Satur said the department has talked about giving media outlets scanners that would provide access to their dispatch channel, as other departments across the country, including Fort Collins Police Department, have done after switching to encrypted channels.

Shades of gray

Police departments in Greeley and Loveland have encrypted their main dispatch lines, as well. Broomfield police are also considering encryption, though they submitted a report to the Broomfield City Council on the issue.

“This is common and it’s not new,” said Adam Wandt, assistant professor of public policy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. “It’s been common for quite some time.”

New York state, for example, has made it illegal for people to monitor police frequencies while in a moving vehicle.

Wandt said it’s not uncommon for criminals to monitor scanners. But, he said, the decision to encrypt the main dispatch line has both positive and negative effects.

″(Police departments) absolutely do decrease their transparency,” he said, “but they do increase privacy for victims and their operations’ security.”

Some departments have gone around this dilemma by using two frequencies — one for “normal” calls, and one for more sensitive cases.

While that provides more transparency, Wandt said it comes with its own difficulties. It’s often hard for a dispatcher to know if a situation is sensitive at first, though that might be discovered later on.

Whether a department should encrypt its channels or not is a personal decision, Wandt said, and an opportunity for agencies to “examine their own policies very carefully.”

“I think that there are balances between making information public and keeping private information out of the public eye,” he said. “But it’s not a black and white answer and there are many shades of gray here. There is not a one size fits all solution.”

Media objections

Three groups representing Colorado’s media organizations — the Colorado Press Association, Colorado Broadcasters Association and Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition — are discussing how to deal with this issue, according to press association interim CEO Jill Farschman.

A bill was introduced to the Legislature this past session that would have prohibited law enforcement agencies from encrypting all of its radio channels, though it would have allowed encryption for tactical and investigative channels. The bill did not make it out of committee.

″(Encryption) is disabling our members from being able to provide timely breaking news, which our public expects to receive,” Farschman said.

Justin Sasso, president and CEO of the broadcasters’ association, said it is addressing the issue through meetings at this time but is withholding public comment “at this delicate stage.”

Farschman said she questions what problem police are trying to solve by encrypting main dispatch lines and how widespread it is.

“It’s not like it’s an epidemic of misuse. Frankly, we would’ve written a story on it by now,” she said.

There needs to be an “understanding that the media and the public are stakeholders, and making this sweeping process change without that understanding or discussion is not acceptable either,” she said.

When asked if social media could substitute for scanner traffic, Farschman said “that doesn’t cut it as an alternative” because it creates a timeliness issue. It also lets departments filter information and “present information with a spin,” which is not the case when people can hear raw information on a scanner as an incident unfolds.

Madeline St. Amour: 303-684-5212, mstamour@prairiemountainmedia.com

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