For Mitchell Byars and other breaking news reporters around the country, the police scanner might be just as important as a laptop computer.
Byars, who covers everything from wildfires to mountain lion sightings for the Boulder Daily Camera, said the radio traffic helps him answer important questions from residents.
“Much of my job every day is answering people who want to know why there are three cop cars in front of their neighbors’ house or why they’re seeing smoke and is that a fire or a controlled burn,” he said last week. “And a lot of those questions we’re able to answer because of the scanner.”
But in recent years, dozens of police departments in Colorado have decided to encrypt their radio traffic, making it harder for journalists like Byars and the public to listen in.
That encryption trend has caught the attention of state lawmakers, who for the second year in a row debated a bill that aimed to limit encryption to just tactical channels like those used by SWAT teams.
Byars testified in support of the bill. But several police officers came out against it, saying open police radio channels put officers at risk.
“The police radio is not a public communications tool,” said Mark Smith, the deputy police chief in Colorado Springs. “The last thing our officers should be worrying about in a dangerous, rapidly evolving situation is whether the suspect knows exactly what we are doing.”
Lawmakers from both parties on the House Local Government Committee sided with Smith and the panel voted, 6-5, to kill the bill.
Rep. Rochelle Galindo, D-Greeley, said she was especially concerned about a story she heard of police officers who were killed by people who learned of their location on a police scanner.
“I think this is very vital to ensuring the safety of our officers,” Galindo said of encryption.
Advocates for government transparency saw the rejection of the bill as a big setback.
Jeff Roberts, of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said Monday he expects to see more police departments “go silent” and encrypt their traffic in the coming years.
“This is going to make it much more difficult for breaking news reporters to do their jobs,” he said.
But transparency advocates are celebrating a legislative victory on a related front.
On Friday, Gov. Jared Polis signed House Bill 1119, which will make it easier for the public to obtain records about internal police investigations.
Roberts said right now, only the city of Denver regularly releases the results of investigations into potential wrongdoing by police officers. Other police departments have withheld the records, with some saying they are contrary to the public interest.
“It’s going to be harder for an agency have an officer accused of some sort of wrongdoing and then not let the public know what the facts of the case are,” Roberts said.
Asked what’s next on his radar, Roberts said journalists in Colorado are fighting for more transparency of court records.
Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Eleven public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.