By Ari Paul / Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting
As a freelance journalist many years ago, I was walking the streets of Brooklyn, looking for a juicy story, anything that I could get into print. I was coming up empty. So I did what anyone would do in that situation. I had lunch.
Halfway through my Jamaican jerk chicken, I heard several gunshots, and in a flash, a man ran by the restaurant. I threw my money on the table and headed to the scene. When I got there a bystander pointed me toward the spent shells. I looked around and talked to witnesses. As one young man pontificated to me about poverty and unemployment leading to crime, I noticed that the cops weren’t there yet. But a photographer from the Daily News was.
That was because, like any good crime reporter, he was listening to police radio and responding to 911 calls, hoping to catch fresh crime footage, fires and other colorful photos that editors love. He’s not alone. Journalists around the country do this, as does anyone who is simply interested in cops, firefighters and other emergency services. Police scanners aren’t cheap, but they are readily available at many electronics retailers.
Restricting the right to listen in
But today, the right to listen to police radio in real time is under attack. The Baltimore Police Department moved to encrypt its radio communications and implement a 15-minute delay (Baltimore Sun, 6/30/23). “The police department plans to provide the adjusted service on a radio broadcast via Broadcastify, and it will be free of charge,” reported WJZ-TV (7/1/23). This still allows for people to listen in, though not in real time.
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But other departments are going further. The police in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale, California, announced it will move to encryption (KTLA, 9/19/23). The New York Police Department is considering an overall encrypted system as some precincts have switched to new technologies (Gothamist, 7/29/23).
When the Denver Police Department moved to encrypt radio communications, Jeff Roberts of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition (Colorado Public Radio, 8/8/19) protested the move, saying, “We always need an independent monitor. And that’s what the news media does on the public’s behalf.”
And when journalists protested the Chicago Police Department’s switch to encrypted radio, then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot (WLS-TV, 12/14/22) claimed the scanner access allowed criminals to evade arrest: “It’s about officer safety…. If it’s unencrypted and there’s access, there’s no way to control criminals who are also gonna get access,” who will then “adjust their criminal behavior in response to the information that’s being communicated.”
Tracking police misdeeds
Crime reporting, of course, has always had its problems. On the one hand, covering crime is a public service by offering communities the ability to know about what happens in the streets every night. On the other hand, crime stories can be sensationalized and overhyped, painting crime as a bigger problem than it is, to bolster calls for bigger police budgets and more aggressive policing (FAIR.org, 10/10/18, 6/21/21, 5/6/22, 11/10/22, 12/7/22).
But police scanners are wonderful tools for journalists covering not just crime, but police as an institution of power, especially in their relationship to social justice movements. For example, during Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter uprisings in New York City, the citywide police channels offered play-by-play, block-by-block and arrest-by-arrest narratives of nightly confrontations. But this also gave reporters key insights into general police tactics and strategies.
It also allows for the public to track police misdeeds. For example, Alex Ratto noted at City Limits (8/25/23): “NYPD officers responding to protests were overheard on the radio telling each other to ‘shoot those motherfuckers’ and ‘run them over’” during the BLM protests of 2020. He added:
In 2021, radio traffic captured requests to the NYPD Strategic Response Group (SRG) for assistance with a missing person, which was rejected because the SRG was occupied monitoring a peaceful protest.
Even during the Occupy movement, it was clear the police knew these facts all too well. It was common to hear a commanding officer on the Occupy detail tell a subordinate to switch to a cell phone. The only reason for this was to evade public scrutiny. So it is no surprise that police are developing new communications systems that are meant to operate in the shadows.
In Mountain View, California, one major problem, as one newspaper editor pointed out, was that police are making these changes to radio encryption unilaterally. “The police shouldn’t be making their own policies,” wrote Dave Price, editor of the Palo Alto Daily Post (4/2/21). “They should be invited to provide their opinions about proposed policies, but the final decision should be that of the council members.”
Public deserves to know
Journalists and free speech groups are protesting the moves to hide police conversations from the public. And they should be—not mainly for the sake of getting spicy crime footage for the papers, but because the public deserves to know what police departments do.
Yes, more and more cops use body cameras. But those can be turned off (PBS, 4/15/22). Public records are available, but it takes time and institutional effort to obtain them.
The idea that encryption is necessary because criminals use scanners to evade police is questionable. There is, indeed, documentation showing that sophisticated criminal outfits have sometimes done this (e.g., Rolling Stone, 6/21/11). But in all the media frenzy in the last several years about shoplifting in San Francisco or rising murder rates in Chicago, very little seems to indicate that a prime source of the chaos was an epidemic of too many police scanners in the wrong hands. And even if a petty thief or a gang member did use a radio in the commission of a crime, one still doesn’t stand a chance against the vast police arsenal of street cameras, drones, helicopters and facial recognition technology. That’s hardly enough reason to keep the rest of the public in the dark.
“It’s yet another expansion of police power that’s completely lacking an evidentiary basis,” said Alex Vitale, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and the author of The End of Policing. “Where is the evidence of crime rates being affected by people using scanners?” He told FAIR:
It also assumes that there’s no public benefit to transparency. The police will sometimes mobilize an anecdote to make a broad claim without calculating the cost of what they’re proposing. We know that public access to scanner information has revealed abusive police behavior, racist exchanges between police officers, and there is a public value in having access to that.
Some police departments are trying to meet journalists halfway by offering the press access to encrypted communications. But as the Freedom of the Press Foundation (8/9/23) points out, this solution gives to the state enormous control over the information the public is allowed to have. And what constitutes a journalist? A staffer at a major institution who has police-issued credentials? What about a freelancer for an independent outlet? Some of the most important scrutiny of police abuse is done by citizen journalists—who are often not recognized by police as journalists at all (FAIR.org, 3/23/16).
In Chicago and Denver, it might be too late to turn the clock back toward more open police communications. But journalists, free speech advocates and good-government groups should strive to fight this kind of encryption where they can. Vitale, for example, noted that in addition to calling for governance transparency in policing, the public should question this new technology on budgetary reasons as well.
“This is very costly to local governments,” he said of proposed contracts with communications firms. “We need to ask them about their sweetheart contracts.”
Ari Paul has reported for the Nation, the Guardian, the Forward, the Brooklyn Rail, Vice News, In These Times, Jacobin and many other outlets.