Encryption efforts in Colorado challenge crime reporters, transparency

Columbia Journalism Review: Colorado journalists on the crime beat are increasingly in the dark. More than two-dozen law enforcement agencies statewide have encrypted all of their radio communications, not just those related to surveillance or a special or sensitive operation. That means journalists and others can’t listen in using a scanner or smartphone app to learn about routine police calls.

Law enforcement officials say that’s basically the point. Scanner technology has become more accessible through smartphone apps, and encryption has become easier and less expensive. Officials say that encrypting all radio communications is good for police safety and effectiveness, because suspects sometimes use scanners to evade or target officers, and good for the privacy of crime victims, whose personal information and location can go out over the radio. They also cite misinformation as a reason to encrypt. Kevin Klein, the director of the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said people listening to scanner traffic during a 2015 Colorado Springs shooting live-tweeted the incident and, in doing so, spread false information about the shooter’s identity and the police response.

But encrypting all radio communications makes it harder to cover crime. Journalists usually don’t use scanner traffic directly in their reports, but they often use the traffic to learn about and respond immediately to breaking news. In that sense, expanding encryption reduces transparency.

“If you’ve ever worked in a newsroom, you know how important the police scanner is to covering a community,” Chip Stewart, a media law professor at Texas Christian University, says. “You can’t get out to cover something if you don’t know it’s happening, and journalists would be at the mercy of police public information officers. Do we want the first draft of history dictated by police PIOs?”

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