Thornton police scanners go dark

City encrypts dispatch calls for sake of safety, privacy

Posted 5/1/17

Thornton’s Dominic Poretti said he was surprised earlier this month when he heard police sirens and tried to tune in his trusty radio scanner. It hadn’t failed him before.

“Usually, it’s the way you find out what’s going on,” Poretti, …

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Thornton police scanners go dark

City encrypts dispatch calls for sake of safety, privacy

Posted

Thornton’s Dominic Poretti said he was surprised earlier this month when he heard police sirens and tried to tune in his trusty radio scanner. It hadn’t failed him before.

“Usually, it’s the way you find out what’s going on,” Poretti, 25, said. “If you turn on the news, you don’t hear what’s going on in Thornton unless it’s really bad.”

Instead, Poretti and other police radio enthusiasts have only heard silence from Thornton police radios after April 10. That’s when the department officially switched from standard radio signals to digitally encrypted signals.

Without a special equipment and code, people can’t listen in on the conversations between police officers and dispatch.

“We have been hearing from residents, not to the point of pitchforks and torches,” said Officer Victor Avila, Thornton public information officer. “People are not up in arms, but there have been a few people have asked why and how it went dark.”

All a person needs to listen to unencrypted signals is an app on their smartphone or an inexpensive scanner, usually costing less than $100. Several local police agencies still broadcast their signals unencrypted, including the Adams County Sheriff’s Office and Northglenn and Federal Heights police. Most fire and ambulance companies use unencrypted channels as well.

Thornton is one of 30 municipal police agencies that encrypt their dispatch communications digitally in Colorado. In Metro Denver, the other agencies that encrypt their signals include the Arvada, Aurora, Lakewood and Westminster police departments.

Avila said the department made the switch to hide officers’ locations and movements from criminals.

“It occurred to me, one time when I was out on patrol,” Avila said. “We were in a community that called us to report car prowlers. Me and another couple officers parked at one end of the street and approached the area on foot, stealthily.”

Avila said he and other officer had just passed a vehicle when a man got out quietly and ran the other way. They chased him, but he got away.

They returned to the vehicle only to find he’d broken in — and left his police scanner, tuned to Thornton police.

“He was listening to us as we came into the area and knew right where we were,” Avila said. “When get got just past him enough, he knew where to run to get away. Now, had it been a hostile encounter, he could have jumped up behind us with a gun.”

Avila said police also have to read personal information over the radios.

“If I pull you over, I’m going to give your name, your date of birth,” Avila said. “If I’m a bad guy and I’m listening I have that information, too. That’s truly all he needs. Before my traffic stop is done, they can be making credit cards in your name.”

Avila said there’s also concerns that the department could be sued if personal information gets out over unencrypted radio signals.

Scanner listener Poretti said he’ll have to be content listening to radio signals from the local fire and ambulance services and from neighboring police.

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