The NYPD is allocating $390 million for a new radio system to encrypt officers’ communications, a departure from the longstanding tradition of allowing public and press access to police dispatches. NYPD Chief of Information Technology Ruben Beltran revealed in a City Council hearing that police radio channels, accessible to the public since 1932, will be fully encrypted by December 2024.
In the hearing on Monday, Beltran explained the decision, citing instances where individuals with malicious intent exploited open radio channels. He mentioned cases where people evaded police by monitoring NYPD radio frequencies to predict their movements and models of unauthorized access, leading to disruptions with music or voices. “Ambulance chaser” attorneys and tow truck companies were also noted to exploit the airwaves for financial gain during medical emergencies.
Beltran emphasized the need to safeguard sensitive information, stating, “We have to stop giving the bad guys our game plan.” Critics argue that restricting public access to police airwaves diminishes accountability. Journalists, relying on police radios for breaking news, have played crucial roles in holding law enforcement accountable.
The concerns extend to potential abuses of power, as highlighted by past incidents captured over police radio. The New York Daily News obtained pivotal footage of Officer Daniel Pantaleo’s actions in the Eric Garner case through a police radio call. Additionally, during the 2020 protests, Gothamist recorded NYPD officers making threatening statements over the radio.
Opponents of the encryption plan argue that it obstructs transparency and undermines the role of the press. Councilmember Robert Holden described encrypting police radios as “a crime in itself,” while Councilmember Vickie Paladino insisted on maintaining press access.
Addressing transparency concerns, Beltran asserted that the NYPD is the most transparent police force in the country. The current conventional analog technology-based radio system dispatches 7.2 million 911 calls annually to 42,000 officer radios. The proposed digital system, requiring a special key for access, aims to enhance security.
While the NYPD has initiated radio encryption in Brooklyn, discussions about potential compromises, such as a 30-minute delay for news outlets, are ongoing. Beltran remains uncertain about future decisions and encourages news reporters to submit Freedom of Information Law requests. State Sen. Michael Gianaris introduced the “Keep Police Radio Public Act,” emphasizing the critical role of maintaining access to law enforcement radio for a free press, violence interrupters, and public information.