Chicago officials blocking access to some live radio transmissions with encrypted scanners

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Tuesday, December 13, 2022
Chicago officials are moving to block members of the public and the media from being able to monitor some police radio traffic in real time.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Chicago officials are moving to block members of the public and the media from being able to monitor some police and radio traffic in real time by installing encryption technology.

Every day members of the public and our newsroom monitor public safety radio frequencies to keep track of what's going on in our neighborhoods, everything from traffic problems to threats to public safety, as they happen.

But now, the city plans to silence this radio traffic and move their communications to encrypted channels that the public can't monitor in real time.

"Right now the environment is all about transparency, accountability," said Rhonda DeLong, DePaul Criminology department. DeLong is a police officer who now teaches at DePaul. She said she understands why police don't want criminals to potentially be able to monitor their radio traffic but says the department should find a way to provide real-time access to critical public safety information.

"We have a news media too, that needs to keep informed of what's happening so they can report the story," said DeLong. "You need that right away so you can move on it," she continued.

"The idea that you could put up some sort of device to shield what that activity is and especially to take it away after it's been publicly available...I think really is problematic, " said Ed Yohnka, Director of Communications and Public Policy, ACLU of Illinois.

Yohnka says the city's plan to only provide access to the newly encrypted channels on a 30-minute delay doesn't solve the problem.

"30 minutes can be a long time in a crime scene! police may be gone, witnesses may be gone," Yohnka said.

A coalition of media organizations, including ABC7, have banded together and released an open letter to share concerns about how the city's plan impacts our ability to use real time information to keep you safe during an emergency, writing in part, "the Mayor's decision to restrict our access to scanner channels will harm our ability to keep you, our readers, viewers, and listeners, safe and informed, and render it more difficult to hold our government and its personnel accountable."

Chicago Kent College of Law clinical professor of law and defense attorney Richard Kling agrees with the city's plan to restrict real-time access for officer safety reasons, as long as the radio traffic is preserved somehow.

"My biggest concern is as things are occurring, I don't know why anyone other than the police would need access to what is going on," Kling said.

"If we had a little bit better relationship with the community, maybe we could come to some middle ground and you know, find something that would work," DeLong said.

In a statement, city officials said, "Radios serve as lifelines for our first responders and the encrypted radios will eliminate 'Rogue' radios with disruptive, often derogatory transmissions that disrupt the day-to-day traffic for emergency personnel. Having encrypted radios will provide added protection for communities and the personal information of victims, suspects, witnesses, and juveniles. It also will enhance officer safety and prevent suspects from gaining a tactical advantage by listening to live incidents and investigations."

ABC7 has reached out to the Chicago Police Department for comment and is waiting to hear back.

Read the full open letter from the media coalition:

To our Readers, Viewers, and Listeners,

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has revealed the City of Chicago's plan to block live transmissions of Chicago Police scanners - restricting access to transmissions that have always been available to the public and to the news media. We are a coalition of Chicago-area news organizations concerned with this planned encryption and are sharing our concerns to raise awareness about how the City's plan will impact our ability to provide timely, accurate and potentially life-saving news to you.

Our newsrooms monitor emergency scanner traffic to report everything from traffic congestion to developing threats to public safety.

As news unfolded about the July 4th shooting in Highland Park, the media and the public turned to police scanners and reporting informed by police scanners to take cover, to stay safe, to locate the missing. A coalition member was able to report on a shooting last month in Chicago's River North neighborhood as the perpetrators remained at large, alerting the public of this imminent danger.

But now, things have changed.

A shooting took place at a courthouse and police district in Chicago last week in broad daylight. The perpetrators fired more than 40 shots and escaped on an expressway. You did not see, hear, or read about that incident as it was happening. The City of Chicago prevented you from knowing about this dangerous incident by blocking all live scanner transmissions. This jeopardized the lives of everyone at that police department, everyone at that courthouse, everyone on that expressway.

Also last week, we learned that a man armed with a rifle was walking down the street in the city's West Pullman neighborhood. He was later shot by Chicago Police. We were not able to alert the public as it was happening. All of this took place around dinnertime, as people returned home from work and children returned home from school.

Real-time access to police scanners promotes transparency and accountability by law enforcement. An analysis of the scanner transmissions in the Uvalde, Texas school shooting revealed that law enforcement's response was not as local authorities had first portrayed it. The availability of scanner communications also directly led to the video recording of the killing of Alton Sterling by two Baton Rouge police officers. To put it simply, the media's informative reporting on these events would never have been possible without real-time access to scanners.

Earlier this year, we learned that Chicago officials intended to prevent Chicago media from hearing these essential real-time scanner transmissions. The City claimed several reasons for the switch, including minimizing disruptions by unauthorized users who transmit fake calls, preventing criminals from monitoring police, and maintaining the safety of first responders. The City has never identified members of the press as the disruptors. And members of the press are regularly in touch with officials to ensure that our reporting does not jeopardize police investigations or public safety.

We reached out to officials to ask that accredited members of the press be granted access to the newly encrypted channels, but the City responded that both the press and the public would only be provided access on a 30-minute delay. We strongly believe that any scanner transmission delay will negatively impact public safety and could put lives in jeopardy when mere seconds matter, for example, during an active shooter event, a tornado, a fire, a bomb scare, a plane crash; virtually any emergency event where the public might need to seek safety or shelter.

Further, in our view, encryption and delays run counter to resounding calls for greater transparency in law enforcement. The City has also already taken the liberty of completely removing some of these recorded transmissions from its delayed broadcast, effectively causing certain police or fire incidents to vanish - as though they never happened. This is censorship in its purest form.

We asked to meet in person with the City to further address these issues, but despite multiple attempts, Mayor Lori Lightfoot flatly refuses to even discuss the matter. In short, the Mayor's decision to restrict our access to scanner channels will harm our ability to keep you, our readers, viewers, and listeners, safe and informed, and render it more difficult to hold our government and its personnel accountable. To borrow language from the highest federal appellate court sitting in Chicago, "The newsworthiness of a particular story is often fleeting. To delay or postpone disclosure undermines the benefit of public scrutiny and may have the same result as complete suppression." We couldn't agree more.

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