Days after New York City limited library services as part of a massive budget cut, effectively forcing public libraries to close on Sundays, the New York Police Department (NYPD) announced that it will spend $390 million on a new radio system that will encrypt officers’ radio communication.
“Access to police radios, a critical tool for newsgathering and police oversight, will no longer be possible if the police get their way,” Andy Ratto, a legal intern at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.), wrote for the City Limits in August.
Since the wave of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, where individuals monitored police scanners and recorded and archived racist comments by the police made over their radios, police departments across the country began to encrypt routine police communications. Press freedom activists have said that these new encryption policies undermine the media’s ability to inform the public on breaking news and the public’s ability to hold police accountable for misconduct.
In 2018, The New York Daily News was able to obtain footage of the police killing of Eric Garner because of a call that came over the police radio which was accessed by the media. And in June 2020, as tens of thousands of demonstrators flooded the streets of New York City to protest police brutality, the Gothamist recorded NYPD officers on radio airwaves telling each other to “shoot those motherf*ckers” and “run them over.”
On Monday, New York City councilmembers Robert Holden and Vickie Paladino said that encrypting police radios “is a crime in itself” and that “there should never be a blackout of the press.”
Brooklyn police have already started encrypting their radios and, in July, six precinct radio frequencies suddenly went off the air. In July, an anonymous City Hall official told AM New York that Mayor Eric Adams “doesn’t like the optics of crime in the media,” which may be why the NYPD is moving toward encrypted communications.
“Whether crime is up or down, if the press shows photos of people being shot, stabbed or robbed, it gives a bad impression of the city and so the mayor would prefer to limit those photos,” the anonymous City Hall official told AM New York.
While NYPD officials have said that reporters will still be able to access archived radio dispatches by submitting Freedom of Information Law requests, the NYPD is currently being sued by S.T.O.P for delaying 42,000 requests over the past four years.
“Encrypting NYPD radios is an alarming change that will damage journalism in the city, harm public safety, interfere with public access to police activity, ignore City Council oversight of the NYPD, and remove an essential tool for protesters,” Ratto wrote for the City Limits. “The City Council must act to block these plans and require that the NYPD not encrypt any of their radios.”
In response to the NYPD’s move toward encrypted police radio transmissions, on Friday New York State Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Queens), introduced the “Keep Police Radio Public Act” in the state Senate. This bill would require law enforcement agencies, including the NYPD, to preserve access to their radio communications for the press and members of the public.
“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,” Michael Gianaris said in a statement. “As encrypted radio usage grows, my legislation would strike the proper balance between legitimate enforcement needs and the rights and interests of New Yorkers.”
While similar measures to keep police radios open have been enacted in Colorado and proposed in California, the success of such measures has been disputed.
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