Last month, I highlighted a piece by my colleague Jonathan Peters, a lawyer and Columbia Journalism Review’s press freedom correspondent, about dozens of police agencies in Colorado encrypting their radio communications, keeping crime reporters in the dark. “That means journalists and others can’t listen in using a scanner or smartphone app to learn about routine police calls,” Peters wrote. “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.”
At the time, I wrote how the Colorado Press Association, the Colorado Broadcasters Association, and the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition were working with the law enforcement community to “come up with a solution that emphasizes transparency” and to “watch this space for more on how that all shakes out.” Well, it shook, and it’s still shaking. This week, The Denver Post’s Elise Schmelzer had quite an update: The public, she reported, “will no longer be able to tune into the daily goings-on of Denver police as the department plans to encrypt all of its radio traffic in the coming months, though news organizations will have access if they sign agreements with the city.”
Say what? According to the story, Denver’s police chief Paul Pazen said news organizations will have to sign a memorandum of understanding with the city before they can access scanner traffic, and the city’s lawyer was writing up some kind of document about it.
More from the piece:
When it comes to determining which media groups will be granted access to encrypted scanners, the chief declined to say where he draws the line at who or what qualifies as a news organization. “We’re not going down that road,” he said. “We did not want to define who the media is.”
News managers of at least one newspaper, The Longmont Times-Call, refused to sign a contract with police in their own community when the cop shop there clamped down on access. Last year, some lawmakers pushed a bill to ban police from being able to encrypt all their radio comms, but it failed. “Journalists use scanners to monitor police activity, report on breaking news and inform their reporting,” Schmelzer reported for the Post, adding that her own paper “first learned about a standoff Jan. 27 at a house where a suspect shot two police officers by listening to the scanner, prompting reporters to quickly respond to the scene.” (In 2015, when military drone operators at Fort Carson lost control of a rogue spy plane and it crashed in the downtown front yard of a Colorado Springs resident, the man who found it said the local TV news got there before the military after hearing about it on a police scanner.)
Some journalists, including here in Colorado, use the Twitter hashtag #scannerFTW (as in: police scanner for the win) to tweet out interesting tidbits they hear crackling across the airwaves while in the newsroom:
#ScannerFTW Officer asks dispatch to call Domino's Pizza, bc delivery driver is getting arrested for DUI and there's a bunch of undelivered pizzas in the back of his car. No, I'm not kidding.
— Katie Langford (@Katielangford35) January 20, 2019
#ScannerFTW: "Wearing a dress, a penguin hat and a leather jacket with a sweater tied around his waist."
— Elizabeth Hernandez (@ehernandez) February 5, 2018
Just heard someone on the scanner refer to a cat attack as a "feline assault" #ScannerFTW
— Erin Robinson (@ImErinRobinson) January 5, 2019
Heard on the #Loveland scanner: Man sitting in the middle of the road in Mariana Butte area, conscious and alert. Apparently he was in a convertible that took a corner too fast, and he fell out. They're still looking for the convertible. #ScannerFTW
— Craig Young (@CraigYoungRH) May 24, 2018
Earlier this week, I caught up with Peters, who teaches media law at the University of Georgia, to get his take about the latest developments from a press freedom perspective.
“This is not encouraging,” he told me. Why? “Because encrypting radio communications makes it harder to cover crime and this solution requiring journalists to make agreements regarding their use of an unencrypted scanner, it expands police power over routine news gathering activities, and that’s hardly in the public interest,” he said. “Because journalists need to be independent of those they cover and police PIOs already try to control tightly the narratives about their departments. So notwithstanding police claims about victim privacy and operation safety, both of which could be served using less restrictive means, I view a lot of this through the longer lens of police efforts to parry public scrutiny.”
Teen journalists are telling stories about gun violence, including here in Colorado
Following the slaughter of 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida last year, teen journalists around the country joined a Brooklyn-based nonprofit project called The Trace that’s “dedicated to expanding coverage of guns in the United States.” Earlier this month, CJR wrote about the teen-centered project, called “Since Parkland“— a “collection of 100-word profiles of nearly 1,200 children killed by gun violence” since Parkland.
From the piece:
Allie Kelly—an 18-year-old high school senior from Denver, Colorado, and a student leader on “Since Parkland”—sat at a large conference table with Beatrice Motamedi, a senior editor on the project. Kelly showed Motamedi a new profile whose subject, 18-year-old Kamal Jackson, had died in October from injuries sustained in a drive-by shooting.
What do you want people who read these profiles to take away?
I want readers to be educated on this issue. It affects students in their classrooms, but it also affects children as they play in their front yards or as they go to the grocery store with their parents. I think really understanding the broadness and urgency of this issue. I also think it is so important that this project is by teen journalists. Who better to tell the story of this shooting generation than us who are living it, who have grown up in it and not known anything different. Student journalists, just teenagers in general, are so often not included in this conversation over gun violence in America, even though it so deeply affects the lives of young people. I would like to think that this project opens up the doors for us to be part of the conversation and to be part of thinking of ways to thoughtfully save lives in the future. And finally, that powerful storytelling is so important and can make such a difference.
You can find the whole Q-and-A here.
Speaking of The Indy… The nation’s highest court had this to say: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Shake it off. Shrug it off. Whatever you want to call it, that essentially was the U.S. Supreme Court’s response to The Colorado Independent’s plea for the nation’s highest adjudicator to hear its First Amendment argument about the ability to view secret state court records regarding a potential matter of life and death. In other words: Petition denied.
The background: A judge in a capital case against death-row inmate Sir Mario Owens found instances where “prosecutors withheld some evidence that could have been favorable to Owens’ side.” But documents in the case are under seal. The public can’t see ’em. The Colorado Independent thinks the public should know what led a judge to rule prosecutors improperly withheld evidence in this death penalty case. The prosecutors, led by the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, don’t think the public should know. And, apparently, neither did retired Senior District Court Judge Christopher Munch who “gave no legal reasoning for his decision to keep sealing those documents.” So The Colorado Independent filed an emergency petition to the Colorado Supreme Court to lift the seal or compel a judge to do so, but the state’s highest court declined and denied a petition for a rehearing. So lawyers, backed by some of the nation’s “biggest news organizations, some of its top legal scholars and a squadron of Colorado newsrooms,” asked the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in for a case called The Colorado Independent v. District Court for the Eighteenth Judicial District of Colorado.
Here was the opening salvo in that petition, laying out the stakes:
This case presents an important foundational question about the public’s constitutional right to information concerning the operation of the criminal justice system. The Colorado Independent asserted a qualified right under the First Amendment to access sealed motion papers, a hearing transcript and an order relating to a capital murder defendant’s effort to disqualify his prosecutor for misconduct and conflicts of interest. Contrary to every federal appellate court and every state court of last resort that has decided the issue, the Colorado Supreme Court categorically rejected the existence of a presumptive constitutional right of access to the sealed records. The holding of the Colorado Supreme Court should be reviewed and promptly reversed because it is so clearly and dangerously wrong. Left undisturbed, it will erode access to important information about crimes prosecuted in Colorado state court and undermine confidence in the judiciary.
This week word came down that the High Court declined to hear the case.
“We knew going in that this would be a long shot,” said Susan Greene, editor of The Independent, in her own publication. “But our news team and board are proud to have stood up and challenged the Colorado Judicial Branch’s secrecy habit and questioned what it seems to interpret as its unbridled authority to shroud from public view whichever records it chooses, regardless of the reason.”
Colorado First Amendment attorney Steve Zansberg, who represented The Indy, said, he was “obviously disappointed” that the Supreme Court did not choose to review the Colorado Supreme Court’s ruling, but added, “we are working with members of the General Assembly who have expressed interest in correcting this state of affairs through legislation — that would codify the constitutional standards, as other states have done — this term.”
Watch this space for if such legislation materializes.
What you missed on the Sunday front pages of newspapers across Colorado
Legends of the Ridden Temple: Rocky remembered
“On February 27, 2009, less than two months shy of its 150th anniversary, the Rocky Mountain News published its final edition, bringing to an end one of the country’s last great newspaper wars and changing the journalism landscape in Denver forever.” No need to re-write that lede here. Michael Roberts threw a gut-punch with it in Westword this week for a piece checking in with former Rocky editor, publisher and president John Temple in anticipation of a “Rocky reunion that will bring together survivors” of what he told Roberts was a “very painful, very disappointing experience, and certainly the most traumatic professional episode of my life.”
For the rest of the piece, Roberts unspooled a tape recorder dump from a conversation with Temple and let him rip. Some highlights:
- “The fact of the matter is, the Rocky’s format was a great strength for the reader and a great detriment to ad revenue.” (Ed note: The Rocky had a tabloid style, The Denver Post a broadhsheet)
- “I also gave Max Potter from 5280 complete access to do a story about what was happening. I said, ‘There are a few meetings you can’t be at — but have at it.’ I wanted an independent person to capture what I thought was important. He ultimately thought something different was important.” (Ed note: That’s some snark there if you click the second link.)
- “The ripple effect is so much larger than the 200-odd people who were ultimately going to lose their job. It’s huge. And the people in the newsroom weren’t just experiencing the trauma and loss themselves. They were caring for loved ones who were experiencing it, too.”
- “The Rocky was very unlike other newspapers. When people were hired, I would give them a one-page sheet that I literally called ‘The Essence of Rockyness,’ because I wanted them to understand that this was a news organization with certain values and a certain character. It wasn’t a generic news organization, and I wanted them to understand what made the Rocky the Rocky.”
- “I don’t believe the future is newspapers. I just don’t believe that’s how people are going to consume information.”
- “We’re holding a reunion of people who worked at the Rocky. It’s going to be on March 9, and we’re going to mark the 160th anniversary of the Rocky Mountain News and the ten-year anniversary of the closing.”
*This column appears a little differently as a published version of a weekly e-mailed newsletter about Colorado local news and media. If you’d like to add your e-mail address for the unabridged versions, please subscribe HERE. Image by zaigee for creative Commons on Flickr.