Journalists and Crime Apps Cry Foul as the New York Police Department Encrypts Its Radio Transmissions, Blocking Police Scanners
Police scanners have been buzzing in newsrooms for decades. That’s changing.
The New York Police Department will encrypt its radio communications, long available to anyone with a scanner, by the end of 2024, unless the New York City Council steps in to prevent the change.
That’s the upshot of a City Council oversight hearing on press transparency held on Monday at downtown Manhattan, that will determine exactly how “free” New York City’s free press will be.
“There are almost 10,000 daily 911 calls” in New York, according to a City Council committee report and briefing paper distributed by city officials at the hearing. These 911 calls and other emergencies have been communicated to law enforcement officers by dispatchers via radio, in a tradition dating back as far as the 1930s.
And for decades, journalists or other concerned citizens have used police scanners, or radio receivers that can tune into the discrete frequency, to listen to police communications and use them for reporting.
A robbery, a shooting, a fire, or any 911 call that a dispatcher sends out on the police radio gets picked up by the scanner, enabling reporters to rush to crime scenes within minutes.
Police scanners have been buzzing in newsrooms for decades. Listening to his scanner led a New York Daily News photographer to obtain the bystander video of Eric Garner caught in a deadly headlock by police officer Daniel Pantaleo in 2014. Scanners also warned people during the Highland Park, Illinois parade mass shooting in 2022 and the Virginia Beach Municipal Center mass shooting in 2019, and alerted civilians as the Marathon bomber was on the run in Boston in 2013.
More recently, these radio communications form the backbone of the hugely popular crime app Citizen, where users receive location-based public safety alerts in real time, can listen to police chatter about crimes reported in their area, and provide more information by adding comments or submitting videos or still pictures.
But now the NYPD is spending $ 390 million to digitize its radio system and encrypt it in a way that will make the information shared on its radio inaccessible to the public and to journalists. On July 17, 2023, precincts in northern Brooklyn, covering areas such as Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant, lost the radio. On September 11, 2023, more areas in Brooklyn were added, like Crown Heights and East New York.
“As of today Brooklyn North is fully upgraded,” Chief Ruben Beltran, who leads the Police Department’s Information Technology Bureau, testified at the three-hour hearing.
“When I graduated from the police department,” he told a room packed with reporters, “they told me the most important piece of equipment on my dumbbell is my radio.”
“Sometimes we can be outgunned, and we’re not going to have the advantage of surprise, but at least, we can call for help, and if we can’t make that call for help, and if someone can’t receive that call, police officer lives are in danger.”
Chief Beltran explained that the old analog radio system that uses antennas and copper wires is in urgent need of an upgrade. The full encryption, he said, is necessary “to ensure operational safety and security.” He emphasized that criminals monitor and use the radios to their advantage.
“We have to stop giving the bad guys our game plan,” Chief Beltran said. Furthermore, the NYPD constantly receives fake “officer down” alerts and fake bomb threats.
None of the council members in the room disagreed with the need for police officers to be safe. “But we must also balance the need for public safety with the need for transparency,” Public Advocate Jumaane Williams commented.
The NYPD has not yet decided if and how journalists would have access to the encryption. “We will release certain 911 calls under certain circumstances,“ Chief Beltran responded vaguely to incoming questions regarding the press. Asked what would influence the NYPD’s decision, he answered that it would be based on experience.
The Chicago Police Department, which is also encrypting its communications, has announced it would make its radio transmissions available to journalists with a 30-minute delay, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Most law enforcement agencies in California have already hidden their real-time communications in compliance with a 2020 state mandate intended to protect victims and witnesses whose names are mentioned over the airwaves.
Indeed, the encryption trend has gone national, with police and sheriff’s departments across the country cloaking their radio communications from private ears. Now transparency advocates as well as crime reporters are sounding the alarm.
“If we lose access to open radio data, it would greatly hamper our ability to protect New Yorkers in real time,” the founder and chief executive of Citizen, Andrew Frame, told the Sun.
Citizen has stepped in to fill a void left as local newspapers cut staff or have closed. It currently alerts its New York City users, by neighborhood, of crimes in progress, publishing police radio transmissions on its app.
On a Monday night, for instance, Citizen notified users on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that there was a “woman reportedly assaulting people” on West 110th Street and that there was a “person laying in the street” on West 72nd Street.
“We’ve issued more than 10 billion location based critical public safety based notifications and we have helped save countless lives,” Mr. Frame testified. “30,000 fires, 28,000 assaults, and 50,000 events involving weapons.”
“The threat and proposed radio encryption by the NYPD,” he added, “threatens to shut down and erase years of extraordinary and public safety progress that our New York Citizen’s team has made.”
“We are walking a very blurry line here, between police safety, too much information getting out and an antiquated system that they’re working with that needs to be revamped,” Council Member Vickie Paladino, who represents the 19th Council District in Queens, told the Sun. “But how do you meet a balance, where is your balance?”
She added that “encryption is a must have in today’s world,” because anyone can hack a call. But after listening to the testimonies of various press organizations, Ms. Paladino agreed that “there should never be a press blackout.”
“Freedom of the press, freedom of speech, that’s who I am,” she said. “When I ran for office, it was all about those freedoms. And you don’t go back on that.”
“In order to build improved transparency and ensure accountability, it is imperative that the First Amendment right of the public to receive information about what their government is doing is upheld through continuing and crucial real-time access by the press to radio transmissions involving matters of public concern,” the general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, Mickey H. Osterreicher, told the Sun after testifying at the hearing.
“Despite our offers to work cooperatively, the NYPD has not been forthcoming in any meaningful way or been willing to share its encryption plans, or to articulate its intentions to provide journalists with access to such crucial communication and information in real-time,” he added.
A Democratic state senator, Michael Gianaris, who represents a section of Queens, introduced a bill on Friday called the “Keep Police Radio Public Act.”
“Preserving access to law enforcement radio is critical for a free press, use by violence interrupters, and the freedoms and protections afforded by the public availability of this information,” Mr. Gianaris wrote in a statement on Monday.