As Chicago police go quiet, public may hear less about crime

On Balance with Leland Vittert

CHICAGO — In neighborhoods across Chicago, residents can no longer listen to police scanners to find real-time information about public emergencies and crime. That is because the city of Chicago is now encrypting the radio transmissions. The plan is for transmissions across all police districts to be encrypted by the end of the year.

The move affects not only residents who depend on the information, but media outlets such as WGN-TV, which uses the transmissions to gather information for broadcast.

Steven Mandell is an attorney who represents WGN-TV and other media outlets in negotiations with Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration.

“Police scanner transmissions have been available for decades,” he said. “Once you encrypt those transmissions, that shuts off the level of information, which affects public safety and our ability to monitor how our government works.”

City officials have said they made the decision, in part, to protect officer safety.

In a recent letter to Mandell, officials said, “real-time access to police radio creates vulnerabilities that present a serious threat to law enforcement and the public, and that can be exploited by domestic and foreign actors — risks that the [city] cannot ignore.”

Chicago police are among at least a dozen departments nationwide that are now using encryption so those without specialized equipment can’t listen.

Once the transition is complete, the public will only have access to Chicago police radio traffic via a website that operates on a 30-minute delay.

Alderman Chris Taliaferro (29th Ward) tells WGN he asked the mayor to reconsider her position. He said he favors encryption, so people can’t broadcast on police frequencies, but is “against” delays.

“I think it’s important that our residents be able to know what’s going on in real-time,” Taliafero said. “Information is one of the most important things we can get. Especially when it comes to crime.”

Pastor Donovan Price works with crime victims and their families, often responding to emergencies within minutes of their happening. He relies on the scanner for information.

“I count on the fact that I’m able to get there immediately — almost before that mother comes down the street because she’s heard something happened to her child,” he said.

More than half of the police’s radio frequencies are now encrypted. The city has denied a request to allow media outlets to keep monitoring the transmissions in real time.

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