SB217’s Blind Spot: Colorado’s Police Should Return to Unencrypted Scanners

The murder of George Floyd at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers inspired one of the most widespread and heroic uprisings in modern United States history. Two weeks of rioting and protest have opened a dialogue about the nature of police and spurred more efforts at reform, or in some cases outright abolition, than years of voting and token civilian oversight efforts ever could have. This is a reckoning years in the making – rampant police brutality has persisted nationwide for decades and between the police unions making any accountability or policy change all but impossible, a “Thin Blue Line” “warrior” culture that has deliberately placed cops above the citizenry, and both peaceful protest and representative democracy failing to rectify the problem, it was only a matter of time before things finally exploded. The brutal, indiscriminate response from police all across the country exposed them as an occupying force with contempt for the populations they purportedly serve rather than a profession existing for conflict resolution; an extortion racket for the wealthy existing to crush dissent and keep systems and institutions failing the vast majority of people afloat to maintain revenue streams.

Unsurprisingly, Colorado law enforcement was in rare form. With a long history of protest suppression, the response to initial demonstrations in downtown Denver as well as Colorado Springs was a strategy of overwhelming force and intimidation. Mirroring the conflicts that played out in most major American cities, it was obvious that the police were starting the riots, but the segment of demonstrators willing to fight back – rightfully fed up with police overreach and invulnerability – was significantly higher than usual. A police murder and the subsequent efforts to crush any outcry should always be seen as a breach of the social contract, and a critical mass of people justifiably and righteously made that breach a two-way street by opening up a conflict with the police that raged for days and still shows very little sign of stopping.

Local efforts to diffuse the tension have ranged from nefarious, with a seemingly AstroTurf “activist” organization emerging overnight in Denver that focused immediately on tone policing, sowing division with a lack of respect for a diversity of tactics, and staging photo-ops for local politicians and the police department, to suspicious – there’s been speculation that the Denver Police stood down not just to deescalate, but because the department was running out of crowd control weapon munitions and had exhausted their manpower. It’s also likely the mayor’s office pulled them back after realizing the DPD handled everything terribly and was primarily responsible for escalating the situation. An officer was fired for posting himself and two other police officers in riot gear and captioning it “Let’s Start a Riot” on Instagram.

Token symbolic measures, like the painting of Black Lives Matter in front of the capitol building and some changing of street signs, were taken this week. Quite quickly, a flurry of activity at the statehouse to get some legislation on the books and hopefully quell anger was engaged, giving Coloradans SB217, a reform bill that’s already passed in the House and will be voted on imminently in the Senate. State Republicans and law enforcement groups (naturally) object to many of the proposals and will likely neuter key provisions in an already relatively toothless bill that seems, on its face, full of “reforms” that are nebulously enforceable.

Dissecting SB217 reveals pretty quickly that it’s mostly lip-service to quiet the calls to defund or abolish the police entirely, once again putting the impetus on police departments to monitor and investigate themselves, tasks they’ve proven time and time again they’re incapable of doing. The outright dispelled obsession with body-worn cameras is on full display, requiring all Colorado law enforcement to be equipped with the devices within three years, and recorded incidents will be required to be disclosed to the public within three weeks. Officers tampering with or failing to activate the cameras will face “sanctions,” however, “there will be exceptions.” A database for police contact and use of force resulting in death will be established (there wasn’t one already?) and, a positive I suppose, police officers fired for excessive force convictions (a… rarity) will have their certification revoked and will not be able to work as cops again within the state. Qualified immunity will be removed and officers will become partially liable in civil suits, chokeholds will be banned (they weren’t already?), “protest control” will receive “new parameters,” and police will now “have a duty to intervene if a peer is using excessive force” (hilariously fat chance). It isn’t necessarily a bad bill, it’s just that although State Senator Larry Crowder (R-Alamosa) called the bill “inevitable”, it seems awfully full of boilerplate, frankly commonsense proposals that long ago should’ve been the standard.

A glaring omission from SB217 is any addressing of Colorado police’s new widespread policy of encrypting their radio transmissions. DPD silenced their scanners at the end of July 2019, and the courts have been litigating the issue due to objections from press organizations and civil liberties groups. Using the umbrella of “privacy” regarding citizens’ personal information being routinely squawked over the air, Colorado cops over the last year have nearly unanimously switched to encrypted channels,

Just from a civic point of view, this is terrible for radio enthusiasts. Listening to emergency scanners is a popular entry point for HAM operators. These are undeniably tumultuous times, widespread social unrest probably isn’t over, and we’re in the middle of a pandemic. In the event that the electrical grid went down or the internet became inoperable, amateur radio enthusiasts maintain decentralized and in many cases off-grid communications infrastructure that could be vital in staying informed and staying safe. It’s absolutely a niche hobby community, but in an era of emergencies, natural disasters, and unprecedented authoritarianism, HAM operators are remarkably relevant and likely reveling in their time to shine. Facilitating the proliferation of operators and infrastructure should be a goal, not engaging in policies that both reduce accountability and transparency within law enforcement and stifle hobbyists.

Scanner monitoring isn’t just for radio enthusiasts. There have been online feeds for decades and smartphone apps made it so anyone can monitor emergency services traffic. Using a scenario from Denver’s unrest underscores the need for average citizens to have access to police scanners: a couple delivering food were attacked by police after driving their vehicle too close to where conflict had broken out between police and demonstrators. The man got out of the car to warn police that his pregnant girlfriend was inside after the police fired pepperballs, and cops opted to indiscriminately shoot tear gas into the vehicle and hit the car and the couple with nearly 100 other projectiles. Tear gas is an abortifacient.

It’s likely that the couple was aware of unrest happening downtown, however, they wouldn’t have been privy to where things were tense or which intersections police were blocking. Police did a poor job of keeping traffic away from the zones of conflict. Running clashes took place all over the Capitol Hill, the 16th Street Mall, and Golden Triangle areas. Perhaps with access to the scanner, they could’ve delivered food (their job) and made detours based on live updates received from dispatch and police on the scene. Anecdotally, because I live and work in that area, if it weren’t for monitoring the local news helicopter feed while I was at work, I never would’ve been able to warn my girlfriend to place towels around the cracks of the doors and windows of our house before police indiscriminately tear gassed my neighborhood when the demonstration ended up down our street. Tear gas wafting into homes, primarily due to the extreme volume utilized during the police riots, was a huge concern that could’ve been mitigated with measures that I took, had residents had access to scanner traffic and knew where police were aggressively mobilizing.

Monitoring scanners is also extremely important for journalism. Despite local corporate media acting as essentially a PR mouthpiece for police departments, going so far as to throw fundraisers, air “back the blue” promotions, and engage in “CrimeStoppers” programming, even while their reporters are attacked in the street by police, journalists rely on scanner traffic to dispatch news crews to developing stories. Without scanner access, journalists rely almost entirely on statements from police crafted after the fact to build a story. The fear of loss of access (blacklisting) to stories has done enough damage on the impartiality of the Fourth Estate with regards to reporting on police, crime, and misconduct as it is, further removing the ability to investigate anything other than the police’s narrative is endangering to an uninformed public.

Finally, in cities with unencrypted scanners, it gave massive insight to the police and their mentality during the uprising. In New York City, police were overheard saying protesters should be shot and run over. In Chicago, a police officer made a remark about “Sanders supporters” before being told to hush by a supervisor reminding him it was a public channel. Cops, itching to use their military surplus hand-me-downs, were undoubtedly motivated towards crushing the demonstrations against them not just by their victim and persecution complexes, but were likely politically motivated as well.

Scanners, even set to a slight five to ten minute delay, make everyone safer. Bystanders know when to shelter in place and journalists are able to more accurately tell stories. So why, in this unprecedented demand for accountability, transparency, and a total re-evaluation of how society at large view policing, wouldn’t lawmakers examine going back to the way things were under a year ago?

Like most efforts to reform any aspect of policing, the police, their unions, and their advocacy organizations have every metropolitan area in the country hostage, maintaining a stranglehold to keep up their racket. They take the most money out of most city budgets, and anything going against them is fought tooth and nail. This isn’t about demilitarization, defunding, or trying to make meaningful reform efforts.

They are too far gone. A gang too big to fail.

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