Chicago Police Scanner: Mayor Lori Lightfoot Defends City Decision to Encrypt CPD Radio Transmissions

CHICAGO (WLS) — Mayor Lori Lightfoot defends the city’s decision to begin the process of encrypting police radio transmissions, a move that will prevent the public from hearing those transmissions in real time.

A coalition of media organizations, including ABC7, is asking the mayor to reconsider the decision. Among the reasons is the impact it will have on the publication of information in real time to keep the public safe during an emergency.

On Wednesday, Mayor Lightfoot said keeping transmissions unencrypted could allow criminals to access the communication and endanger officers.

“This is about officer safety,” Lightfoot said. “If it’s not encrypted and there’s access, there’s no way to control criminals who will also gain access, listen, and adjust their criminal behavior in response to the information being communicated.”

The media coalition noted that the city has never identified members of the press as disruptors. And members of the media regularly communicate with officials to ensure that our reporting does not jeopardize police investigations or public safety.

The coalition has also asked to meet in person with the city to talk more about these issues. There have been several attempts and Mayor Lightfoot has refused.

Read the full open letter from the media coalition:

To our readers, viewers and listeners,

Mayor Lori Lightfoot revealed the City of Chicago’s plan to block live feeds from Chicago police scanners, restricting access to feeds that have always been available to the public and the media. We are a coalition of Chicago-area news organizations concerned about this planned encryption and are sharing our concerns to raise awareness about how the city’s plan will affect our ability to bring you timely, accurate, and potentially life-saving news.

Our newsrooms monitor emergency scanner traffic to report everything from traffic congestion to developing threats to public safety.

As news of the 4th of July Highland Park shooting unfolded, the media and the public turned to police scanners and reports reported by police scanners to protect themselves, stay safe, and locate the missing. A coalition member was able to report a shooting last month in Chicago’s River North neighborhood while the perpetrators remained at large, alerting the public to this imminent danger.

But now things have changed.
A shooting took place at a courthouse and police precinct in Chicago last week in broad daylight. The perpetrators fired more than 40 shots and escaped on a highway. You did not see, hear or read about that incident while it was happening. The City of Chicago prevented him from finding out about this dangerous incident by blocking all live scanner transmissions. This endangered the lives of everyone in that police department, everyone in that courthouse, everyone on that highway.

Also last week, we learned that a man armed with a rifle was walking down the street in the city’s West Pullman neighborhood. He was subsequently shot by Chicago police. We couldn’t alert the public while it was happening. This all happened around dinner time, when people were coming home from work and kids were coming home from school.

Real-time access to police scanners promotes transparency and accountability on the part of law enforcement. An analysis of scanner transmissions in the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting revealed that the law enforcement response was not as local authorities had initially portrayed it. The availability of scanner communications also led directly to the video recording of the murder of Alton Sterling by two Baton Rouge police officers. Simply put, informative media reporting of these events would never have been possible without real-time access to scanners.

Earlier this year, we learned that Chicago officials intended to prevent the Chicago media from listening to these essential real-time scanner transmissions. The city cited several reasons for the change, including minimizing disruptions by unauthorized users transmitting bogus calls, preventing criminals from controlling police, and keeping first responders safe. The City has never identified members of the press as the troublemakers. And members of the press regularly communicate with officials to ensure that our reporting does not jeopardize police investigations or public safety.

We reached out to officials to request that accredited members of the press have access to the new encrypted channels, but the City responded that both the press and the public would only have access with a 30-minute delay. We strongly believe that any delay in scanner transmission will have a negative impact on public safety and could put lives in danger when only seconds matter, for example, during an active shooting, tornado, fire, bomb threat, plane crash; virtually any emergency event where the public may need to seek safety or shelter.

Furthermore, in our view, the encryption and delays go against the resounding calls for greater transparency in law enforcement. The city has also taken the liberty of removing some of these recorded broadcasts from its delayed broadcast entirely, effectively making certain police or fire incidents disappear as if they never happened. This is censorship in its purest form.

We ask to meet with the City in person to address these issues, but despite multiple attempts, Mayor Lori Lightfoot steadfastly refuses to even discuss the matter. In short, the mayor’s decision to restrict our access to scanning channels will harm our ability to keep you, our readers, viewers, and listeners, safe and informed, and will make it more difficult to hold our government and its staff accountable. Borrowing the language of the highest federal appeals court in Chicago, “the newsworthiness of a particular story is often fleeting. Delaying or postponing disclosure undermines the benefit of public scrutiny and can have the same result as complete suppression”. We could not agree more.

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