Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misspelled police chief candidate Maris Herold’s last name. The story below has been updated.
Boulder police chief finalists remained silent Monday on their stances on law enforcement agencies shielding radio scanner traffic from the public and media, with city officials this week set to oppose a proposed Colorado bill meant to ensure access to the communications.
Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle confirmed he is on the same page with the city’s state legislative agenda, which City Council is set to discuss updating Tuesday.
But neither the city’s nor county’s police activity is about to be taken off the air in the immediate future. Some law enforcement officers and advocacy groups have said restricting scanner access is a necessary step for officer safety and victim privacy with the advent of mobile apps allowing the public, including criminal suspects, to listen to real-time police activity and potentially learn or disseminate officer locations, or victim information.
City officials are in the process of building their own communications system that will allow Boulder police to separate their dispatch traffic from the county sheriff’s office. The agencies share a single set of channels currently.
But who the city’s next police chief will be and his or her philosophy on public access to it is unknown, and that could be one of the biggest factors determining whether Boulder police scanners, and websites and cellphones tuned into apps that can play the traffic, will grow quiet.
The city’s scanners are currently not encrypted, nor are the county’s, meaning dispatchers and officers can be heard by the public; Pelle said the county sometimes uses encrypted channels on certain calls, such as drug investigations.
“As we move forward with the new radio system, the ability to encrypt channels exists so public safety staff are discussing if and/or how we would do so,” city spokesman Patrick von Keyserling said. “… Whether to encrypt scanner traffic would be a policy discussion that would be informed by police and city staff, but would not be made solely by the police chief.”
Yet the eventual police chief selection to replace Greg Testa, who retired as Boulder’s top cop last year, could play a significant role in the decision. The chief’s opinions did in Denver, which encrypted its police scanner traffic last year, according to Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.
But none of the five finalists for the Boulder job revealed their thoughts on the matter Monday.
“I would really have to look at all the issues and get educated,” Maris Herold, a finalist who is now chief of the University of Cincinnati police department, said. She added, “I sure haven’t” worked in a department that encrypted scanner traffic.
Curtis Johnson, a deputy chief in Boulder who is also a finalist for the job, initially agreed to be interviewed about scanner encryption, but ultimately directed a reporter to von Keyserling, the city spokesman, after Interim Police Chief Carey Weinheimer, another finalist, also referred a reporter to the spokesman.
Requests for comment left on social media and with receptionists for the other two finalists, Jason Lando, a commander for the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, and Derrick E. Wood, a veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department, were not returned.
The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition has been concerned with scanners going silent as departments across the state have considered and enacted encryption. The bill moving through the statehouse, which is up for a committee discussion Wednesday, would require government organizations that hide radio traffic to develop an encryption policy, which must provide access to unencrypted radio communications to media members and prevent the government from “imposing unreasonable and burdensome limitations on access to radio communications,” the bill’s summary states.
Longmont has also encrypted its police scanner traffic and has provided the Times-Call and Camera newsroom a scanner that picks up its communications. Denver news organizations have so far not agreed to accept conditions that would allow city officials to inspect reporting materials and other documents pertinent to an outlet’s use of a city-issued scanner.
Pelle said such a condition would likely not be a part of any agreement he would seek to strike, should the sheriff’s office decide to encrypt its radio traffic.
The sheriff is not opposed to the media having access to real-time scanner information, and said the conditions for a news organization’s use of a scanner that can pick up encrypted communication would be similar to standard journalistic practices, including not identifying sexual assault victims shared over dispatches, or other victim information.
But Pelle said departments should be able to choose their own practice, with the proposed state-required mandate potentially taking away that flexibility. The bill also does not define the “media” that must be given access well enough, Pelle contends.
“We of course would open our channels to the media through an agreement,” Pelle said. “The problem I have is what’s media? Is it the bloggers? Or is it local print, radio and television media?”
He added there is a potential challenge with the separation of Boulder police and the sheriff’s office dispatch systems, since the current open scanner channels allows officers in separate agencies to keep an ear on situations being handled by neighboring jurisdictions.
“It disables situational awareness as we travel from place to place,” Pelle said of separating the communication systems.
Von Keyserling said that will be taken into account as city conversations around potential scanner encryption continue; there is no time-table for the discussion or action, he added.
“Interoperability is one of the factors we will consider regarding encryption,” the spokesman said. “Part of it comes down to which agencies have which equipment. We are still quite a ways out from that point and there will be public process around the decision.”