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Encrypted Police Scanners Block Media From Direct Access

Some journalists listen in on police radio, hit the pavement, and report back to editors. Sometimes they document isolated tragedies—a single loss of life that might otherwise go unrecorded. They also cover scenes involving gangs, or other organized crime, as well as cases in which police officers are involved and they’ve fired a gun at someone. But in recent years, many police departments have updated their communications systems to become digital, which has enabled officers to encrypt their messages and block out the media, the Columbia Journalism Review reports. Last week, hours after the New York Police Department announced a new commissioner, Edward Caban, journalists noticed that some precincts in Brooklyn had encrypted their radios. At a time when Americans are calling for greater scrutiny of police, that change, however technical it may seem, cuts off a crucial, direct means of access. Reporters are left to rely on officers to provide information at a press conference—and that’s a problem, because departments can choose what they want to talk about, and how.

CJR's Emily Russell observes that the shift toward encryption comes at a time when Americans have been calling for greater scrutiny of police. Starting in 2016, a couple of towns—one in New Hampshire, the other in Connecticut—encrypted their departments’ radios. “Only law enforcement officials with a ‘key’ could hear what was said.” In 2019, Denver encrypted; in 2020, so did Baltimore, followed in 2021 by San Jose and San Francisco. “Law enforcement agencies say they encrypt because they’re updating their radio technology,” Russell notes. “Modern digital radio systems—which make interagency communication easier, between, for instance, the EMS and the police—offer private transmissions that only certain police radios can pick up. But moving to a digital system does not require encryption. Encryption simply becomes available.”


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