Summit County’s law enforcement leaders weigh in on government transparency issues
A pair of bills introduced in the state Legislature this year could have lasting impacts on the way the public views transparency in law enforcement.
Earlier this month Gov. Jared Polis signed a new bill into law that allows completed internal investigation files of police officers to be made public via open records requests. The other bill, which would have restricted what radio communications law enforcement agencies were allowed to encrypt, has been tabled indefinitely in the House Transportation and Local Government Committee.
As statewide conversations regarding police transparency continue, law enforcement leaders in Summit County voiced their opinions on the discussion.
The bill to limit encryption, sponsored by Rep. Kevin Van Winkle, would have required state, county and municipal government entities to broadcast their regular radio communications without encryption.
In short, the bill would have solidified the right for members of the public and news media to listen in to police and other emergency broadcasts online or via commercially available radio receivers and scanners (the Summit Daily keeps a scanner in the office to help report on breaking news).
The bill did have exceptions to the proposal, including allowing encryption of tactical and investigative radio communications to preserve the integrity of police operations and assure the safety of law enforcement agents. But while Summit County organizations currently don’t encrypt their communications, law enforcement leaders are happy they still have the option in the future, and many are hoping to take advantage.
“I do wish our radio channels were encrypted,” said Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons. “When you walk into a private business and hear a scanner going, it’s an unnerving feeling. Anything one of our deputies puts over the radio, a bad guy could be listening to right behind the next door.”
Jerry Del Valle, director of the Summit 911 Center, said that the county does have an encrypted channel for the SWAT team, though not everyone’s radio is capable of receiving the frequency, meaning not all members of the team can use it.
While interviewed separately, the county’s police chiefs (Frisco Police Chief Tom Wickman couldn’t be reached for comment) all said that encryption is something that they’d like to look at in the future — whether to help increase officer safety, to curb the flow of false information that spreads on social media or to prevent the general public from hearing sensitive information about other members of the community.
“I think the public, though they absolutely have the right to know what the police are doing, don’t have the right to a ringside seat to a citizen’s worst day of their life,” said Breckenridge Police Chief Jim Baird. “There’s things that go out over the radio like medical information about people and mental health crisis, and these people’s names are going out.”
While there was a consensus that encrypting the county’s radio communications in the future might be in the cards — they’re all run through a single dispatch center, meaning a consensus among agencies would likely be necessary to make the move — some chiefs offered solutions to keep the public in the loop, such as allowing community members to listen in with a delay or supplying news media organizations with a means to listen.
“We’re looking at updating the radio system — it’s antiquated — in the next couple of years,” said Silverthorne Chief John Minor. “We haven’t had any recent instances where this has been an issue, but we’d have that discussion as we’re contemplating how to replace the radio equipment.”
Del Valle said the county is currently working on a request for proposals for the new system, though the process would likely take between one to two years to complete.
The other transparency bill introduced this session has already been signed into law, meaning that from now on, any completed internal investigations at law enforcement agencies around the state are subject to open records requests. However, there are some significant limitations.
The new law allows members of the public to access completed internal investigations, including the investigation file, witness interviews, video and audio recordings, disciplinary actions and more. The law enables records custodians to redact obviously sensitive information, such as identifying information of whoever filed the complaint, confidential witnesses and informants and medical information.
The law only applies to investigations related to alleged misconduct involving a member of the public, meaning accusations made by other police officers may not be included. The law also only applies to investigations initiated after the signing of the law, so any investigations launched prior to April 12 of this year will remain obfuscated.
Despite considerable restraints, law enforcement leaders in the county largely lauded state policymakers for the change.
“It’s time for us to be as transparent as possible,” said Dillon Chief Mark Heminghous. “The problem I see with most incidents is if people don’t have the information, a story just gets made up. Why give people the ability to start spinning the news and creating stories nowhere near the truth? Let’s get the truth out there to begin with.”
Minor was the most skeptical of the new law, saying that while it would likely have little impact on his department, it could create a slippery slope for the release of other public employee records.
“This has opened the door for people down the road to say, ‘why not get complaints against teachers?’” said Minor. “‘Why not firefighters, paramedics, why not other public employees like the person who maintains vehicles down at the fleet?’ So where does this stop? It’s myopic, but it’ll have very little impact on us.”
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