Police union president, mayoral candidates skeptical as Lightfoot silences scanners


CHICAGO —  Some of the candidates for Chicago mayor are responding to the city’s ongoing move to block the press and public’s ability to listen live to police activity.

It comes after WGN Investigates first reported on the silencing of police scanners on Monday. In Chicago, more than half the city has already gone silent as the Lightfoot Administration moves to encrypted radios.

Local news organizations have been appealing to the mayor for months arguing that as the public’s eyes and ears, media should not be locked-out of real-time information on what’s happening in our city.

On Wednesday Mayor Lori Lightfoot responded and argued encryption protects against nefarious actors hijacking police frequencies, as briefly happened during the 2020 protests, looting and street clashes.

“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,” Lightfoot said. “It doesn’t stop. “

In a city that shattered decades-old crime records last year, the silencing of public access to police scanners also offers an upside to a mayor facing a tough re-election fight – a mayor who first ran on transparency.

That’s because it blinds the media and community-based first responders to knowing what’s happening in real-time.

Thursday there was more reaction from some of her challengers as well as the police union president who is skeptical of some of her claims.

“Openness is important and journalists and other folks who have a vested interest in the safety of our communities should be able to do their jobs,” candidate Brandon Johnson said. “Her blockage is very much emblematic of her failed leadership and broken promise.

“You can’t help but think maybe there are ulterior motives here,” candidate Paul Vallas said.  “I’m very sympathetic to the media’s desire to have access to that and full disclosure.”

“Crime is out of control in Chicago. Hiding police scanner transmissions is only going to make us less safe and prevent the news media from doing their job,” candidate Chur Garcia said in a statement to WGN. “This is short-sighted, dangerous and an effort to once again avoid accountability. We need a Mayor who will tackle crime, not try to hide it from us.”

So far, the City has only been willing to provide access to regular encrypted channels on a 30-minute delay and with the opportunity to edit the broadcasts before they’re made public – to redact sensitive information, they say.

The media has an unlikely ally in police union president John Catanzara.

“I could see a rationale for a 5-10 minute window but after 10 minutes, it seems a little ridiculous,” he said.

He said he does not believe Lightfoot when she said it’s about officer safety.

“Because if it was officer safety, I ‘d think the unions that represent police would’ve been asked what they thought.  That never occurred because she doesn’t care.  This is about total control,” he said.

Catanzara – and the mayoral candidates who responded – are suspicious of Lightfoot’s motives.

 “If I were mayor I’d sit down and try to find out what are the absolute safeguards we need to have and let the police make their case,” Vallas said. “But right now I have to side with you all because I really suspect there may be an ulterior motive here.”

Chicago is not the only city attempting to fully encrypt its police frequencies but Las Vegas, for example, allows the media to listen in live to alert the public to safety threat.

Lightfoot was asked about that potential compromise and said it’s not fair to treat the press differently from the public.

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