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

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CHICAGO — In Chicago neighborhoods, residents can no longer listen to police scanners to find real-time information about emergencies and crimes. That’s because the city of Chicago already encrypts radio broadcasts. The plan is to have transmissions in all police districts encrypted by the end of the year.

The move affects not only residents who depend on the information, but also media outlets like WGN-TV that use the broadcasts to gather information for broadcast.

Steven Mandel, an attorney representing WGN-TV and other media outlets in negotiations with Mayor Laurie Lightfoot’s administration.

“Transmission of a police scanner has been available for decades,” he said. “Once you encrypt those transmissions, it shuts down the level of information that affects public safety and our ability to monitor how our government operates.”

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

In a recent letter to Mandel, the officials said that “real-time access to police radios creates vulnerabilities that pose a serious threat to law enforcement and the public and that can be exploited by domestic and foreign actors — risking that [city] cannot be ignored.”

Chicago police are among at least a dozen other departments across the country that now use encryption so those without specialized equipment can’t eavesdrop.

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

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

“I think it’s important for our residents to be able to know what’s going on in real time,” Taliaferro 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 occurrence. He relies on the scanner for information.

“I’m counting on the fact that I can get there right away — almost before that mother comes down the street because she heard something happened to her child,” he said.

More than half of police radio frequencies are now encrypted. The city denied a request to allow the outlet to continue monitoring the broadcasts in real time.

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