Since 2016, dozens of cities nationwide have switched their police radio systems to digital technology, and then encrypted the radio traffic so that members of the public — including journalists — cannot listen in. Facing a loss of access to emergency calls that journalists depend on to cover police in real time, without the filters of police public relations offices, New York City journalists are sounding the alarm that the nation's largest police department in the largest media market could be next. A Columbia Journalism Review podcast covers the controversy through the eyes of one of what it calls the "first responders of journalism," freelance photojournalist Dakota Santiago, who follows a nearly century-old journalism practice of racing from one crime scene to the next to provide a visual record of police activity, and to tip off client news organizations of crimes they may not otherwise hear about. If all radio traffic goes under an encryption shield, Santiago explains, "This job would be nonexistent. It would be impossible to do."
So far, a handful of NYPD precincts have gone digital and begun to encrypt their calls, although the department claims no policy has been set and that it's open to hearing arguments from the media that public information principles should dictate open access. Critics of open airwaves say bad actors, including police protesters, have been known to misuse their access or even hijack radio traffic to broadcast protest messages. But freedom of information advocates say those problems are rare and trivial compared to the downsides of hiding police business. Though the issue has been controversial in many cities, such as Baltimore, San Francisco, Denver, and San Jose, Chicago's switch to encrypted digital radio in 2022 brought the debate to more national attention, particularly because of arguments by social-justice advocates that journalists often misuse their access to peddle harmful narratives about cities and violence. Santiago's answer to those complaints: "If you suppress what this violence looks like, then people won’t really think of it as what it is. You know, out of sight, out of mind.”