The NYPD is spending $390 million on a new radio system that will encrypt officers’ communications — reversing a near-century-old practice of allowing the public and the press to listen to police dispatches.
Police radio channels, which have been public since 1932, will be fully encrypted by December 2024, NYPD Chief of Information Technology Ruben Beltran said in a City Council hearing on Monday.
“Bad actors have used our radios against us,” Beltran said.
New Yorkers have fled police officers by listening into NYPD radio channels to anticipate their location, he said. Others, he added, have broken into the police radio system to disrupt communications with music or their own voice, and “ambulance chaser” attorneys and tow truck companies have followed the airwaves to make money off of medical emergencies.
“We have to stop giving the bad guys our game plan,” Beltran said.
Critics of the plan said that losing public access to airwaves means losing accountability for police. Many news reporters and photojournalists use police radios to chase breaking news and hold police officers accountable.
The New York Daily News obtained the crucial video of Officer Daniel Pantaleo killing Eric Garner thanks to a call that came over the police radio in Staten Island. As tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators flooded the streets in June 2020, Gothamist recorded NYPD officers on radio airwaves using threatening language about the protesters, including saying that officers should run protesters over and shoot them. Responding, one officer was recorded saying “don’t put that over air.”
Encrypting police radios “is a crime in itself,” Councilmember Robert Holden testified on Monday.
“There should never be a blackout of the press,” Councilmember Vickie Paladino added.
Addressing transparency concerns, Beltran said, “The NYPD is the most transparent police force in the country.”
The NYPD has received 7.2 million 911 calls so far this year that have been dispatched 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 set-up and require a special key to access the channels, Beltran said.
Police already started encrypting its radios in Brooklyn, claiming it helped catch a long-standing “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.
The Chicago Police Department, which is considering a similar plan, has proposed a 30-minute delay to allow news outlets to access information soon after it is dispatched, the Chicago Sun Times reported.
Asked about whether the NYPD would consider freeing up its radio dispatches after 30 minutes, Beltran said he wasn’t sure what the department would decide and asked news reporters to submit Freedom of Information Law requests. 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 on Friday called the “Keep Police Radio Public Act.”
In a statement on Monday, Gianaris said, “Preserving access to law enforcement radio is critical for a free press, use by violence interrupters, and the freedoms and protections afforded by the public availability of this information.”