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Chicago police officers’ radios crackled with rogue messages during weekend of chaos

The city has launched an investigation to unmask those responsible for “jamming” its emergency radio system. Everything from anti-cop music to pro-cop slogans interrupted police dispatchers.

Chicago police officers clash with protesters Saturday near Kinzie and State streets as thousands in Chicago joined national outrage over the death of George Floyd, who died in police custody on Memorial Day in Minneapolis.
Chicago police officers clash with protesters Saturday near Kinzie and State streets as thousands in Chicago joined national outrage over the death of George Floyd, who died in police custody on Memorial Day in Minneapolis.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

Hackers interrupted Chicago’s police radio system over the weekend with everything from anti-cop music to pro-police slogans as dispatchers struggled to answer calls during the looting and gun violence.

“It’s a very dangerous thing that they’re doing,” said Dan Casey, deputy director of public safety information technology in the Office of Emergency Management and Communications.

Hackers interrupted a Chicago police radio frequency with music Sunday. In a video, two unidentified men laughed as they listened to it on this scanner.
Hackers interrupted a Chicago police radio frequency with music Sunday. In a video, two unidentified men laughed as they listened to it on this scanner.
YouTube screenshot

Casey said recordings of the rogue transmissions are being provided to local and federal authorities, who will investigate. That investigation comes as local and federal authorities continue to investigate claims that extremist groups made orchestrated efforts to undermine otherwise peaceful protests in attempts to stoke division across America.

“Jamming,” as it’s called, is illegal and can carry heavy prison time. In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an eight-year prison sentence for a man who jammed police radio frequencies in Madison, Wisconsin.

More than 130,000 people have viewed a YouTube video posted Sunday in which two men are heard laughing as what they think is Serbian music plays over a scanner on a Chicago police frequency as an officer tries to get help transporting prisoners.

Chicago police officers who worked over the weekend said they also heard the late ’80s hip-hop song “F--- tha Police” by N.W.A. on their radios.

The hackers broke into tense radio transmissions about looting, fires and the need for ambulances.

But some of the hackers appeared to be supporting the officers.

“Blue lives matter most,” one of them said Saturday. “Officer safety is to leave. Let ’em burn it down.”

One hacker even shouted, “Vote Democratic!”

All the while, the dispatchers tried to remain calm as they fielded requests from cops on the street.

“They’re not letting me copy you at all,” a frustrated dispatcher told one officer seeking assistance Sunday night.

At one point, an angry supervisor broke in to say, “This is not the time to play on the radio!”

Police departments across the country have moved to encrypt their radio systems to stop hacking and prevent criminals from learning about their movements.

In Chicago, the police department has some encrypted frequencies, but most patrol officers use radios that aren’t protected from hacking.

“We are looking at a multiyear plan to secure the radio channels,” Casey said.

Even then, he said, some frequencies will remain unencrypted so other law enforcement agencies can continue to communicate with the Chicago Police Department.

In Denver, where the police department encrypted its radios last summer, there was pushback from news organizations that had used the transmissions to assign reporters to crime scenes.

Scanner enthusiasts also opposed the change, with some arguing that access to those communications helped citizens hold the police accountable.