To our readers, viewers and listeners,
Mayor Lori Lightfoot revealed the city of Chicago’s plan to block live transmissions from Chicago police scanners, restricting access to transmissions that have always been available to the public and the media. We are a coalition of Chicago-area news organizations affected by this planned encryption and share our concerns to raise awareness of the impact of the city’s plan on our ability to provide you with timely, accurate and potentially life-saving information.
Our newsrooms monitor emergency scanner traffic to report everything from traffic congestion to developing threats to public safety.
As news of the July 4 shooting in Highland Park unfolded, the media and the public turned to police scanners and police scanner-informed reports for shelter, 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 while the perpetrators remained at large, alerting the public to the impending danger.
But now things have changed.
A shooting took place in a Chicago courthouse and police precinct last week in broad daylight. The perpetrators fired more than 40 shots and fled down a highway. You did not see, hear or read about this incident as it happened. The City of Chicago has blocked you from being aware of this dangerous incident by blocking all live scanner transmissions. It endangered the lives of everyone in this police department, everyone in this courthouse, everyone on this highway.
Also last week, we learned that a man with a gun was walking down the street in the city’s West Pullman neighborhood. He was later shot dead by Chicago police. We were unable to alert the public while this was happening. This all took place around dinner time, when people were coming home from work and the children were coming home from school.
Real-time access to police scanners promotes transparency and accountability of law enforcement. An analysis of scanner transmissions during the shooting at a school in Uvalde, Texas, revealed that the response from law enforcement was not as local authorities first described it. The availability of scanner communications also led directly to the videotaping of Alton Sterling’s murder by two Baton Rouge police officers. To put it simply, informative media 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 block the Chicago media from hearing these essential real-time scanner transmissions. The city cited several reasons for the change, including minimizing disruption from unauthorized users making 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 troublemakers. And members of the press are in regular contact with officials to ensure that our reporting does not compromise police investigations or public safety.
We contacted officials to request that accredited members of the press have access to the newly encrypted channels, but the city responded that the press and public would only have access with a 30-minute delay. We strongly believe that any delay in scanner transmission will negatively impact public safety and could endanger lives when mere seconds count, for example, during an active fire event, tornado, fire, bomb threat, plane crash; virtually any emergency situation where the public might need to seek shelter or refuge.
Moreover, 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, causing certain police or fire incidents to disappear – as if they never happened. This is censorship in its purest form.
We asked to meet in person with the City to discuss these issues further, but despite multiple attempts, Mayor Lori Lightfoot adamantly refuses to discuss them. In short, the mayor’s decision to restrict our access to scanner channels will hurt our ability to keep you, our readers, viewers, and listeners, safe and informed, and will make it more difficult for our government and its staff to be held accountable. To borrow the language of the highest federal appeals court sitting in Chicago, “The timeliness of a particular story is often fleeting. Delaying or deferring disclosure undermines the benefit of public scrutiny and may have the same result as complete removal. We couldn’t agree more.
CBS 2 Chicago
NBC 5 Chicago
ABC 7 Chicago
Fox 32 Chicago
Chicago Sun Hour