Photojournalist John Roca cruised through Midtown Manhattan as the streetlights flicked on. It had been a slow day for Roca, who has chased breaking news in New York City for a half-century. He knows how to decipher the codes that come over a police scanner, a device that broadcasts radio communications between 911 dispatchers and officers who respond to emergencies. Roca knows what mayhem might “make ink.” His way of news gathering has existed for decades. A $500 million radio system the New York Police Department introduced this summer encrypts officers’ communications, meaning the public and the press will no longer be able to listen in. The project will take at least five years to complete, though some frequencies have already gone dark, reports the New York Times.
The debate over whether to encode the transmissions is playing out across the U.S. Most law enforcement agencies in California have hidden their real-time communications to comply with a 2020 state mandate meant to protect the names of victims and witnesses that are spoken over the airwaves. The Chicago Police Department was expected to encrypt its system by this year, making transmissions public only after a 30-minute delay. Those who oppose the shift — including elected officials, news outlets and advocates for law enforcement accountability— argue that encryption inhibits transparency, erodes trust in the police and prevents crucial information from being reported quickly. Transmissions are monitored not only by newshounds, but by neighborhood groups and people who make a hobby of being tuned into city life. “The idea that we’re going to turn this sort of vital information into something that’s only accessible to the public at the whims of police is just truly chilling,” said Albert Fox Cahn of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project in New York. In July, the New York City Council called the encryption move “troubling” and said there “should have been a comprehensive plan to maintain access and transparency rather than it being an afterthought.” The body’s public safety committee plans to discuss the new system this week.