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Debate brews as NYPD rolls out radio encryptions

At the heart of this conversation lies the tension between public access and encryptions for enhanced security. Media outlets, city officials and concerned citizens are grappling with the implications of encrypting these transmissions, which have already begun rolling out.

Edric Robinson

Aug 15, 2023, 4:04 PM

Updated 334 days ago

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Recent discussions have ignited a debate within New York City regarding the encryption of police radio transmissions.
At the heart of this conversation lies the tension between public access and encryptions for enhanced security. Media outlets, city officials and concerned citizens are grappling with the implications of encrypting these transmissions, which have already begun rolling out.
“We’re here to inform the public and they’re trying to take that away from us,” said Bruce Cotler, president of the New York Press Photographers Association. 
For over 38 years, Cotler has been on the front lines, capturing scenes and relaying crucial information from NYPD radio transmissions. He warns that encryption might replace vital information with silence, potentially depriving the public of critical updates.
“With Eric Garner, Daily News photographer was listening to police radio. He grabbed someone who had the video, they put it out in the media. If police got to it first, we wouldn’t have known about Eric Garner,” said Cotler.
NYPD transmissions serve not only journalists but also popular scanner phone applications like Broadcastify and Citizen. These apps provide real-time emergency updates to users. However, the NYPD has started to restrict public access, raising concerns about transparency. Cotler points out that several precincts in Brooklyn North have gone silent without warning. 
“We don’t hear anything so we don’t know what’s going on, unless someone we know lives there or a citizen calls us and says, 'Hey, there’s a shooting,'” said Cotler. 
The NYPD argues that encryption is essential for officer and public safety. They also note that criminals have reportedly exploited open frequencies, prompting the need for encrypted communication. 
The NYPD said in a statement posted to Twitter, “From preserving the integrity of active crime scenes to restricting those who intentionally transmit on police frequencies to disrupt emergency communications, there are many reasons encryption is vital. The NYPD works day-in and day-out to be transparent and build trust with the public. we are exploring whether certain media access can be facilitated, including utilizing methods that are already being used in other jurisdictions with encrypted radio systems,” 
“Bad guys are looking at this. They can see when we’re responding to a crime. They know when it’s reported,” said Mayor Eric Adams at a news conference in July. “We have to make sure we find that proper balance and that’s what we’re going to do,”
The City Council expressed concerns over the NYPD's encryption rollout, calling for a comprehensive plan to ensure continued access and transparency. Council Member Sandy Nurse says she believes radio transmissions should remain open to the public. “Going dark of our police radios is going to undermine our ability to provide oversight and accountability as a council but also for the public,” said Nurse
She points out that other cities' experiences with encryption have been mixed. 
“We’ve seen that other cities have started rolling back on those efforts, cities that went dark decided to implement a delay or remove that policy all together so it’s not working in other places and I don’t understand why New York city would look at that data and look at those examples and decide to do it anyway,” said Nurse. 
Freelance photojournalist Lloyd Mitchell is appealing to the NYPD to engage in dialogue before moving forward with any encryption plan. 
 “Chicago is encrypted on a 30-minute delay, trying to get to a news scene in Chicago is a pretty drastic scenario,” said Mitchell, who’s been in the field for 15 years.  
“We’re at least getting their day to day operations for the general public to see and that is crucial and critical and of significance and importance, hopefully they understand our side,” continued Mitchell.


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