The NYPD is spending $390 million on a new radio system that will encrypt officers’ communications, ending a nearly century-old practice of allowing the public and press to listen in on police dispatches.
Police radio channels, which have been public since 1932, will be fully encrypted by December 2024, NYPD information technology chief Ruben Beltran said at a City Council hearing Monday.
“Bad actors used our radios against us,” Beltran said.
New Yorkers fled police officers by listening to NYPD radio channels to anticipate their whereabouts, he said. Others, he said, have broken into the police radio system to interrupt communications with music or their own voices, and “ambulance chasing” lawyers and tow truck companies have followed the airwaves to make money from medical emergencies.
“We need to stop giving our game plan to the bad guys,” Beltran said.
Critics of the plan said losing public access to the airwaves would mean losing police accountability. Many journalists and photojournalists use police radios to follow the latest news and hold police officers accountable.
The New York Daily News obtained the crucial video of Officer Daniel Pantaleo killing Eric Garner through a call transmitted over the Staten Island police radio. As tens of thousands of peaceful protesters flooded the streets in June 2020, Gothamist recorded NYPD officers on the airwaves using threatening language toward protesters, including saying officers should run over protesters and shoot them. In response, an officer was recorded saying “don’t put this on air.”
Encrypting police radios “is a crime in itself,” Councilman Robert Holden said Monday.
“There should never be a press blackout,” added Councilor Vickie Paladino.
Responding to transparency concerns, Beltran said, “The NYPD is the most transparent police force in the country. »
So far this year, the New York Police Department has received 7.2 million 911 calls, which were distributed across the department’s 42,000 officer radios, Beltran said. The current radio system consists of hundreds of radio antennas and transmission sites in a “conventional analog” system, but the new digital system would use an Ethernet configuration and require a special key to access the channels, Beltran said.
Police have already started encrypting their radios in Brooklyn, saying it helped stop a longtime “robbery crew” that had used police radios to dodge arrests, Beltran said. In July, six precinct radio frequencies suddenly went dark, AM New York reported.
Chicago police, which are considering a similar plan, have proposed a 30-minute delay to allow media access to information shortly after it is broadcast, the Chicago Sun Times reported.
When asked if the NYPD would consider releasing its radio dispatches after 30 minutes, Beltran said he was unsure of the department’s decision and asked reporters to submit requests under the law on freedom of information. The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project sued the NYPD in March for delaying 42,000 requests over the past four years.
State Sen. Michael Gianaris, who represents a section of Queens, introduced a bill Friday called “Maintaining the Public Police Radio Act.”
In a statement released Monday, Gianaris said, “Preserving law enforcement radio access is essential for a free press, for the use of violence interrupters, and for the freedoms and protections afforded by the public availability of this information. »
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