Home News NYPD radio encryption harms the public’s rights

NYPD radio encryption harms the public’s rights



Since 1936, journalists have provided New Yorkers with real-time lifesaving information about dangerous and newsworthy activity in their neighborhoods. They have warned people about train accidents, chemical leaks, riots, criminal activity, and major life-threatening events like 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy. Providing this timely, accurate, and essential information was possible only because journalists possessed radios that could scan open and transparent NYPD and other emergency services radio frequencies.

That era of transparency may be over, unless the Legislature and Gov. Hochul act to preserve meaningful access to police radio communications. Legislation introduced by Senate Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris and Assemblymember Karines Reyes (S.7759/A.9728) would guarantee that police communications remain accessible in a way that preserves the safety of law enforcement personnel. With the Legislature scheduled to adjourn for the year in two weeks, the time to act is short.

Last year, NYPD deployed encrypted radio frequencies that blocked journalists’ access in 10 Brooklyn precincts, making it difficult, if not impossible to receive timely information from trusted, independent news sources and journalists about dangerous situations in those neighborhoods. Recently, the ability to monitor NYPD frequencies was blocked in Staten Island as well as some important police channels in Manhattan. According to the NYPD, by the end of 2024, all police radio transmissions will be encrypted. Other police departments across New York may follow suit unless state leaders act now.

By blocking journalists’ access, NYPD is forcing citizens to turn to untrustworthy social media platforms to learn about dangerous activity in their communities. Without trustworthy journalistic sources, we can expect an increase in the spread of inaccurate and biased information. Bystanders arriving on the scene with mobile phones often get the facts wrong when taking videos during emotionally charged events. Once such misinformation is posted in the public realm, it can take weeks for New York City and professional journalists to undo the damage.

NYPD’s plan to rely on digital platforms such as X, Facebook, TikTok, Snapchat etc. will create information chaos.

Moreover, NYPD’s own social media platforms lack the audience reach to be heard over the cacophony of multiple platforms spreading mis and dis-information. Its platforms may lack the capacity to report on all the important or hazardous events throughout the city in real time, resulting in significant delays in notifying citizens. Unfortunately, not all citizens find the NYPD credible. Restricting access to monitor NYPD transmissions by independent journalists can only make this problem worse.

Before the City Council last November, the NYPD justified blocking access to police communications to prevent the “bad guys” from receiving information about police activity. We agree that criminals should not place officers in jeopardy by accessing internal police communications. But the NYPD provided no examples in the past 90 years where journalists’ ability to monitor police communications had ever harmed an officer. We do not ask for access to all police communications, such as private information or tactical communications that may place officers in jeopardy.

NYPD claims it may consider access with a 30-minute delay. New Yorkers need to know immediately about dangerous events that require police action. Any delay may be too late. Moreover, given traffic congestion, a 30-minute delay means journalists will not arrive until well after the event has taken place.

In February 2023, we submitted a written plan for journalists to maintain access without endangering police officers. The NYPD has not responded to that document. NYPD could have tested journalist access in precincts where it has deployed newly encrypted radios. It did not. Actions in Brooklyn and plans to roll out encrypted radios citywide prove that it plans to deny journalists real-time access to these broadcasts.

This issue transcends the typical friction that sometimes occurs between the press and law enforcement. NYPD is creating a permanent structural barrier to prevent real-time reporting. The plan would forever alter how, or if, New Yorkers will ever again receive information about dangerous activity in their neighborhoods.

Once the roll-out is completed, it may become more difficult to make technical adjustments that will allow for journalist access. The citizens of New York City will be faced with a fait accompli. The NYPD should not place our city in this untenable position. State government leaders can avoid this dilemma by acting now before more police communication channels go dark. We urge them to do so.

Kennedy is president of the New York News Publishers Association. Donovan is president of the New York State Broadcasters Association.

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