Chicago mayor responds to calls from news organizations to reconsider encrypted police scanner policy
CHICAGO — Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is responding to calls from Chicago news organizations to reconsider her policy blocking the press and the public from listening to police radio traffic in real-time.
It comes after a WGN Investigates report Monday in which we detailed how Chicago police radios are being encrypted.
The scanners are being silenced in more than half of the city’s police districts as the department encrypts radio frequencies. All are expected to be encrypted in the next year.
“Once you encrypt those transmissions, that shuts off the level of information, which affects public safety and our ability to monitor how our government works,” Media law attorney Steve Mandell said.
Mandell is making the case for Chicago news organizations to city hall, arguing the public has a right to monitor, in real-time, police activity.
“It’s about officer safety,” Lightfoot said Wednesday. “If it’s unencrypted and there’s access, there’s no way to control criminals who are going to also get access, listen in and adjust their criminal behavior in response to the information that’s been communicated by the officers via radio transmission. It doesn’t stop.”
Lightfoot’s administration will only make police radio traffic available on a website with a 30-minute delay.
As WGN Investigates reported Monday, the city reserves the right to edit the broadcasts before they’re made public. They said it would be to protect personal information.
“So a lot of that can be removed by the dispatcher,” Dan Casey with the Chicago Office of Public Safety said.
The city said the move to encryption is to protect officer safety, but provided no examples of officers actually being harmed by people who monitor police scanners.
Encryption is also meant to prevent people from commandeering police frequencies, as happened during the 2020 protests and looting.
“And then what I found out was on a routine basis, you have individuals in our community blowing whistles, air horns and doing other things to interrupt and disrupt the communications from the dispatchers to the police officers and so forth,” Lightfoot said. “And then finally, some people are even taking it even further and doing things like calling 10-1’s, meaning officer down, to send officers on a false mission.”
But that’s not how she characterized the threat of rogue radios in 2020.
“I think there were some inappropriate people that were sporadically on the lines but it didn’t hinder any of the communications with the officers that were in the field and in the different deployments,” Lightfoot said in June 2020.
It’s not just the press and general public who rely on police scanners.
Pastor Donovan Price is a defacto first responder, counseling and consoling crime victims while also defusing tension.
“I see emergencies, shootings down my street, I pick up the scanner,” Price told WGN Investigates. “I might as well put it back down.”
While Lightfoot may not budge, the city council’s public safety committee chairman said she should.
“I think it’s important that our residents be able to know what’s going on in real-time,” 29th Ward Ald. Chris Taliaferro said. “Information is one of the most important things we can get, especially when it comes to crime.”
“What we’ve offered to other media organizations is a slight delay in the transmissions and they’ve essentially told us, I won’t say pound sand, but that’s essentially what they told us: their way or no way,” Lightfoot said.
Lightfoot’s administration has denied multiple requests to meet to discuss the issues.
Other cities, including San Francisco, Denver and Louisville, Kentucky have also encrypted their police frequencies.
They did it in Las Vegas as well, but there, they provide live access to accredited news organizations.
That’s what Chicago media is asking for, because we believe we are your eyes and ears to what’s happening in the city.
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