Castle Rock Police, Douglas County Sheriff's Office to fully encrypt radio channels

Municipal police departments weighing option to go dark

Posted 8/12/19

The Douglas County Sheriff's Office will fully encrypt its radio channels before the year's end, Undersheriff Holly Nicholson-Kluth has confirmed to Colorado Community Media, citing safety concerns …

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Castle Rock Police, Douglas County Sheriff's Office to fully encrypt radio channels

Municipal police departments weighing option to go dark

Posted

Two of Douglas County's law enforcement agencies will soon begin prohibiting the public from listening to their radio communications, while the remaining two departments weigh the option to fully encrypt.

The Douglas County Sheriff's Office and the Castle Rock Police Department will fully encrypt before the year's end, Undersheriff Holly Nicholson-Kluth and Castle Rock Police Chief Jack Cauley have confirmed to Colorado Community Media, citing safety concerns for officers and the public.

The decisions come on the heels of the Denver Police Department's move to fully encrypt its radio communications. Other agencies across Colorado and the nation have also blocked scanner traffic in recent months and years.

Media experts fear the trend diminishes transparency.

"I'm not surprised by it," Colorado Press Association CEO Jill Farschman said after the sheriff's office confirmed it will encrypt. "But it's not a good trend for openness and transparency."

The Parker Police Department is considering encrypting in January and the Lone Tree Police Department remains undecided, according to spokesmen from each department. A spokesman for South Metro Fire Rescue said the department does not encrypt and does not have plans to.

Both Farschman and Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said encryption hinders the ability of journalists to swiftly report breaking news. It also leaves them at the mercy of law enforcement agencies to make known in a timely manner when an incident occurs and gives the agencies more control over what information is released.

"I understand (law enforcement's) arguments, but there are absolutely arguments on the other side," Roberts said. "The public's right to know is limited when police agencies encrypt all of their radio communications."

Public safety cited

Cauley said the Castle Rock Police Department encrypts one channel to date but will encrypt all of its five channels later this year. The sheriff's office, beginning last year, tested encrypting two of its four main channels to use during tactical incidents. They've since decided to fully encrypt.

“The main reason we are doing what we are doing is to prevent criminals from having the ability to ambush or avoid law enforcement and first responders by listening to public safety radio,” Nicholson-Kluth said.

Maneuvering between public and encrypted channels on an as-needed basis, as the sheriff's office tested in recent months, is difficult, Nicholson-Kluth said. Officers have described changing channels in high-pressure situations as cumbersome and stressful.

The shooting death of Deputy Zackari Parrish is an example, she said. Parrish was killed in December 2017 during an incident that drew a heavy, multi-agency police response to Highlands Ranch after a gunman opened fire on multiple deputies.

Parrish was injured in the onset of the shooting and left unresponsive, unable to evacuate the gunmen's apartment. He remained trapped inside for roughly 90 minutes. That left the gunman with Parrish's radio, feeding him information. First responders switched to a different channel than the one Parrish's was tuned to.

Nicholson-Kluth said encryption would not have helped during the Parrish shooting, where their communications were compromised, but it demonstrated the difficulty in switching channels from the field.

Cauley echoed Nicholson-Kluth. Asking officers to change channels in life-threatening situations is nearly impossible, he said. Cauley could not call to mind examples of suspects using scanners to track or monitor Castle Rock police officers. He recounted a 2012 incident in which a suspect armed with a long gun kept officers pinned down until an armored vehicle could rescue them.

"To ask officers in a situation like that to turn a channel is, I think, very difficult," he said.

Nicholson-Kluth pointed to other incidents like the shooting of Detective Dan Brite in 2016 and the recent STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting as examples of incidents that show the need for secure channels.

“Since (the Parrish shooting) we've realized that it's just too difficult during major incidents to get everyone to switch channels and then regroup on a new channel,” she said. “The coordination of that is almost impossible.”

To Farschman, those also demonstrate a need for heightened transparency and public channels.

"Do you want to get your information about what happened in an officer-involved shooting from the public information office after it's been reviewed by their attorneys, or do you want to hear it from legitimate journalists who are breaking that news in a timely fashion on the scene," she said.

Nicholson-Kluth said the amount of information broadcast on existing public channels that is investigative or tactical in nature remains a concern for the sheriff's office.

Once encryption is complete, the sheriff's office plans to provide media outlets with access to encrypted channels, but members of the public would need to submit a records request to hear it.

Transparency a concern

The decision comes after a heated year of debate among Denver metro area newsrooms and the Denver Police Department. Denver police radios went dark at the end of July, despite serious concerns from media outlets and scanner hobbyists about transparency.

Media experts have long held concerns that encryption diminishes transparency, accountability, the ability for journalists to do their jobs and ultimately leaves them at the mercy of law enforcement to report incidents.

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 legislative session.

It's unclear if there will be more attempts to address encryption concerns through legislation.

"I don't think that's something that we're going to share at this juncture," Farschman said.

Numerous Denver metro area journalists have taken to social media since the switch to lament the timeliness and the manner in which the Denver department has self-reported police activity.

"I think one of the most important things is that we don't confuse public information officers with journalists," Farschman said. "Getting our news information from crafted tweets from the department that has a vested interest in story positioning is not journalism."

Denver police and local media outlets for months negotiated an agreement that would allow newsrooms 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.

Roberts said oversight like that is "a problematic thing when a news organization is supposed to be completely independent and in control of its own records." 

Farschman agreed.

"There were absolutely deal-breakers," Farschman said. "Lines that journalism organizations are not going to cross."

Nicholson-Kluth said the Douglas County Sheriff's Office aims to be less restrictive on newsrooms.

“I don't anticipate an agreement other than just verifying that they are a legitimate media agency,” Nicholson-Kluth said. “There may be some agreement but there won't be any major stipulations as to how they can use the information that they gain from having the access.”

That was heartening news to Roberts.

"If other agencies are willing to do that without an agreement" compromising news organizations' independence, he said, it's a good step. "At least it would allow the news organizations to continue doing what they're doing on the public's behalf."

Nicholson-Kluth did not say how the sheriff's office will determine what is a “legitimate media agency." She said she believes the media plays a significant role in keeping the community informed and that journalists' access to police radios is not an issue for the sheriff's office.

Both Farschman and Roberts said it will be difficult for law enforcement to make that determination, however, in a world brimming with everything from blogs to traditional news outlets.

"Good luck," Farschman said.

Cauley was not sure how the department would provide media organizations with access to the encrypted channels but said they are considering doing so.

"We are cognizant of the need of media outlets to have access to radio traffic in order to keep the community informed," Cauley said. "I think this is new ground for everybody, but we're wanting to work with media outlets because we know that they're important partners."

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