Chicago police joining national wave of encrypting radio communication, raising transparency concerns




  • In US
  • 2022-09-26 10:00:00Z
  • By Chicago Tribune

The days of Chicago reporters and news photographers relying on a live, crackling police scanner to chase news and tell the public what officers are doing in real time are quickly coming to an end.

The Chicago Police Department is moving all of its radios to digitally encrypted channels by the end of this year, limiting access to one of the few ways the public can best monitor police activity. Journalists have had a long tradition of listening to police radio traffic to know when breaking news is occurring and to get to the scene of an unfolding event.

Adam Scott Wandt, an assistant professor and vice chair for technology at the Department of Public Management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the change equals an end to citizens around the country having full access to know what police are doing as they work.

"Then there's a whole other class and that's the class of reporters in the media, and I am a firm believer in government transparency and accountability," Wandt said. "And it certainly worries me, significantly worries me. If the police lock the media out of live radio broadcasts, it in my opinion, certainly reduces the level of accountability that police departments will face."

The police zones that will become encrypted will still be available for the public to listen on a 30-minute delay on Broadcastify, which is an online live audio platform. The city's Office of Emergency Management and Communications does not have a contract with the service, officials there said, nor has it paid any money to stream on the website. It is free to the public.

A Broadcastify spokesman said in an email that Chicago officials asked the company to send all media inquiries to the city and declined to comment other than confirming that it is providing the broadcast service. The company has been working with the city for about a year on the project, the spokesman said.

The Broadcastify transmissions are direct audio feeds from OEMC. In addition to the delay, dispatchers will have the ability to pause the transmissions when personal identifiable information is being discussed, the office said.

Response to 'rogue radio'

The city has said the move was made in response to harmful "rogue radio" calls that put officers in danger, a reference to outside users interjecting comments and chatter over police traffic, but some experts say taking away the long-used tool from reporters reduces transparency.

Radios are a useful and common tool among law enforcement agencies to communicate with officers and coordinate responses through the central communications center. Chicago's radio communication has long been available for the public to listen to via personally purchased and programmed scanners or through online applications.

A community of people who listen to the scanners has formed on social media, specifically Twitter, where listeners post about things they hear over the scanners, including shootings, traffic, protests and weather.

The city began the process in 2017 to secure public safety radios and prepare to migrate from analog encrypted channels to digitally encrypted channels, according to the Office of Emergency Management and Communication.

Chicago police districts are split into several radio zones, and the first to become encrypted was Zone 9, which covers the Calumet and Morgan Park police districts, on May 12.

Since then, the majority of the zones covering the South Side and Far South Side have been encrypted.

"There's no secrecy or lack of transparency. It's just related to officer safety. We don't want any nefarious (radio traffic) to lead to officers being injured or hurt," Superintendent David Brown said at a news conference over the summer when asked about the encryption. "Because our job is not just difficult, it's very dangerous."

Brown pointed to this year's increase in the number of officers being shot as an example of why police need an extra layer of protection. OEMC also cited several cases of unauthorized disruptive communication, such as on April 19, when fake police emergencies were called in using real-life audio recordings from past incidents.

The project will be phased in per zone, and the transition to encryption is scheduled on a monthly basis, but there are no exact dates remaining for the zones that have not yet transitioned, officials said.

Richard Guidice, executive director of OEMC, agreed that officer safety is a primary reason for the encryption, which is on schedule to be completed by the end of 2022. OEMC receives anywhere between 7,300 and more than 13,000 calls in a day, he said.

The move to encryption will also provide protection against the personal identification of victims, suspects, witnesses and juveniles, which are often broadcast over the radio following a crime or incident, city officials said. Chicago Fire Department radios channels will remain unencrypted, as will other police channels that are used for coordination with outside agencies.

Illicit use of police radio

In addition to interfering with police communication, some people have used radio traffic to avoid police after a crime or to avoid DUI checkpoints, Wandt said. As technology increased, it became common for some to broadcast such information over the internet and smartphone apps.

States including New York have passed specific vehicle and traffic laws that prohibit the monitoring of police radio frequencies from a motor vehicle, Wandt said.

Wandt said he believes there are many ways police departments could continue to provide access to the media, including setting up a special credentialed website where reporters could sign in and listen to live radio dispatches or even issue police radios that receive traffic but don't transmit.

But it's a double-edged sword, Wandt said.

"If you are a victim of a crime, would you want your name being broadcasted over the radio - hundreds, if not thousands of people listening and recording it, streaming it?" he said. "And at the same time, if you were a police officer involved in a tactical operation, could it put your safety in danger to broadcast on an unencrypted channel? The answer is yes."

Some media experts said journalists' use of police scanners can distort the crime narrative for the communities they cover.

Kelly McBride, chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at the Poynter Institute, said reporters often listen to the scanner to chase dramatic stories and images.

"That's not the same thing as covering the stories that most affect public safety," she said.

But McBride said there still is a public safety need for the audio, and that fewer people monitoring the scanners does mean less accountability.

"Hopefully, if anything good comes out of this, it will be that news organizations in Chicago start talking to law enforcement about getting better data information, not just about incidents, but about broader trends," she said, "because that's really how you can start to explain public safety risks to the public."

A national trend

Moving police communications to encrypted channels is not uncommon. Other major cities have already moved to fully encrypted digital radio channels, including Denver; San Francisco; San Jose, California; Louisville, Kentucky; and others.

Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said encryption has been a trend among law enforcement agencies in Colorado, and there have been several attempts at legislation around the encryption.

Last year, there was a provision added to a law-enforcement accountability bill that was aimed at making sure news media had access to encrypted transmissions, Roberts said. That required law enforcement agencies that encrypt communications to have a policy that allows news media access.

In Denver and Aurora, Colorado, police have encrypted their communications but have not been able to reach an agreement with the news organizations in the area.

Because the news media does not have access to the radio in those areas, the news media learns about what happened well after the fact and relies on law enforcement agencies' communications departments, Roberts said.

"And maybe their judgment of what is news is different than your judgment of what is news," Roberts said.

"I don't know that there's been a lot of cases where journalists have misused their access to police radio transmissions," Roberts said. "I think we are losing something by not having news media access to scanner traffic. We're losing the public's ability to know more about crime in their cities and to know about how law enforcement responds to crime in the cities."

Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, said encryption especially affects the work of photojournalists, where reporters can write a story afterward, photographers can't re-create photographs.

"Delaying it by 30 minutes, I think as a lawyer, the saying 'Justice delayed is justice denied,'" Osterreicher said. "Thirty minutes, an incident could be completely over."

Almost every police vehicle has some type of computer where a lot of information that used to be communicated over the radio is now exchanged, so a lot of it is already not being broadcast, Osterreicher said.

Osterreicher, who worked as a photojournalist for over 40 years, said he had at least five scanners in his car because he didn't want to miss anything.

In California, legislators attempted to enact a law requiring law enforcement agencies to find alternatives to full encryption of radio communications, but it failed to advance because of police opposition.

"I think there's many departments that would rather not have any oversight. ... And that's unfortunate, very unfortunate," Osterreicher said. "It really goes back to transparency and accountability. If you don't know what's going on, that's not very transparent. And certainly, if you don't know what's going on, how are you going to even ask about accountability?"

ACLU raises questions

Ed Yonka, a spokesman for the ACLU of Illinois, said the organization has a lot of concerns over transparency when it comes to encryption.

"(Listening to scanners) is an important vehicle for accessing and understanding what the police are doing, what they have to deal with and where issues exist across our neighborhoods," Yonka said.

When it comes to the Chicago's argument that encryption is keeping information away from those who may be committing crimes, that is "at best speculative," Yonka said.

"This appears to be a step that is in search of a problem to address as opposed to something that's absolutely necessary, and of course, all of that comes at the cost of transparency and public accountability," Yonka said.

Spot News, an online scanner reporter who asked to only be referred to by his Twitter account's name to keep his anonymity, has a following of more than 100,000 users.

Hewakes up early in the morning, listens to at least eight scanners in his garage setup and doesn't stop tweeting what he hears until his eyes can no longer focus and he needs to sleep, he said. Even then, he brings a radio with him to bed.

But now he can't listen to the South Side police districts anymore, including his home district, and he's too far south to pick up North Side districts that have yet to be encrypted.

To adapt to the encryption, he said that when he learns of a call he's interested in, he sets a timer for 33 minutes after it occurred. Then he checks Broadcastify for the scanner traffic.

Since citizens of Chicago pay taxes that pay for the Police Department's radio communication, he said, they should have the right to know what the department is talking about.

"The mayor, the superintendent and the state's attorney will tell you that crime is down, and if you're not able to hear it, well, I guess it is down," he said.

Donovan Price, a street pastor with Solutions and Resources/Street Pastor Chicago, has been working on the streets since 2016 as a victims' advocate, giving families the knowledge of the process after a shooting and getting them the resources they need. He sets a goal of getting to the scene of a shooting 20 minutes after the call of shots fired was made.

"I'm a first responder," Price said. "I leave immediately, and the sooner I get there, the better position I have to help the people and to build a relationship with the people."

Now Price has three scanners that he listens to regularly, but the encryption has been affecting his work.

"The timing of me getting there is very important because the emotions of the situation and the whole crime scene commotion, I'm one of the people who calms it down," he said. "I'm one of the people who the police respect for helping them in that situation. … And now I'm not there on time. I don't have the information to help me stay safe and to help me serve the families."

pfry@chicagotribune.com

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