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Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks at a press conference at the Office of Emergency Management and Communications earlier this year. The city is moving forward with a plan to limit public and media access to emergency communications.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks at a press conference at the Office of Emergency Management and Communications earlier this year. The city is moving forward with a plan to limit public and media access to emergency communications.

Anthony Vazquez

Delaying access to Chicago police radio calls threatens public safety, media coalition says

Listening to Chicago police communications for instant reports of crimes and emergencies has long been basic news gathering for the city’s media and an informative pastime for citizens. But that practice is changing dramatically as the city encrypts more radio channels, and media outlets are speaking out against the plan.

A coalition of news organizations, including the Sun-Times, affiliate Chicago Public Media and the Chicago Tribune, oppose the city’s policy that gives reporters and the public access to encrypted channels only after a 30-minute delay. The news outlets argue the delay hurts their ability to provide timely information.

“There are countless examples of how the media’s access to scanner transmissions have helped the public avoid dangerous situations, the Highland Park July 4th tragedy being just one recent example,” wrote Steven Mandell, a lawyer for the media outlets, in an Oct. 19 letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot. He also raised objections in a July 21 letter to Kate LeFurgy, Lightfoot’s communications director.

In an interview, Mandell said there has been no answer from Lightfoot. Police Supt. David Brown on Nov. 18 replied with a letter that explained why the encryption would go forward as planned.

“It took them four months to get back to us on any substantive issues,” Mandell said. “Our own goal is to sit down and have a good give-and-take. It’s very disheartening when nobody will even talk to you.”

Lightfoot’s press office did not respond to a request for comment.

Other members of the media coalition include CBS Channel 2, NBC Channel 5, ABC Channel 7, WGN Channel 9, Fox Channel 32 and Block Club Chicago.

The news organizations propose that journalists be authorized for instant access to encrypted channels, much the way Chicago police issue credentials so media can access reserved areas near crime scenes.

The coalition issued a statement Monday opposing the mayor’s plan.

“We strongly believe that any scanner transmission delay will negatively impact public safety and could put lives in jeopardy when mere seconds matter, for example, during an active shooter event, a tornado, a fire, a bomb scare, a plane crash; virtually any emergency event where the public might need to seek safety or shelter,” the statement said.

“Further, in our view, encryption and delays run counter to resounding calls for greater transparency in law enforcement. The City has also already taken the liberty of completely removing some of these recorded transmissions from its delayed broadcast, effectively causing certain police or fire incidents to vanish — as though they never happened. This is censorship in its purest form,” according to the statement.

The dispute is coming to a head because the city set a yearend target for migrating all police channels to an encrypted format. But in an email Friday, spokesperson Mary May of Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications said the rollout now should continue through early 2023.

Chicago Police use 13 channels, or zones, for communications in its districts, as well as channels to broadcast citywide alerts. May said that currently nine zone channels have been encrypted, with the rest to be scheduled monthly. Most zone channels cover dispatches for two police districts, some for one.

Delayed access to those channels is available only through the Broadcastify app that lets users listen to police and fire communications in many cities. The press and public traditionally monitor the channels on radios called scanners that check frequencies public agencies use. The move to encryption silences police traffic on scanners.

May said the initiative will put Chicago on a par with other cities that have encrypted police communications, such as Denver, San Francisco and Louisville, Kentucky.

Mandell said police in Las Vegas and Decatur, Illinois, went to encryption while providing timely access for media.

Police officials argue that encryption protects first responders, victims and witnesses because criminals and gang members monitor the public broadcasts. The Chicago plan allows the redaction of information police deem sensitive from encrypted broadcasts in the half-hour before its public release.

In the Nov. 18 letter to Mandell, Brown and Annastasia Walker, executive director of the Office of Public Safety Administration, said rogue users have infiltrated some of the standard broadcasts, transmitting fake calls for help or holding down the transmit button, creating an “open key” that prevents officers from using the channel.

They also said credentialing reporters for instant channel access is unworkable, in part because it’s difficult to define established news outlets. They said the 30-minute delay serves the interests of transparency and the public’s right to monitor police performance.

In addition, social media often provides quick tips about breaking news, they said.

Mandell argued that abuses police cite aren’t committed by journalists and that Brown and Walker offered no clear explanation for why media credentialing can’t work. The department can simply adopt a definition of “news media” the municipal code already uses for crime scene access, Mandell said.

He also said the police department can cite no case of officer safety being compromised by immediate access to police calls.

As for sensitive information, Mandell said most officers use computers in their cars to privately communicate matters they don’t want to broadcast.

In his October letter to Lightfoot, Mandell cited the police department’s problems with transparency and honesty in cases involving police shootings or abuse.

“This move simply will not help the Department rebuild trust among the public it serves,” the letter said.

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