Police radio communications can’t be made vulnerable to criminal behavior

The utility of unencrypted radios for media outlets simply does not outweigh the potential harm to our public.

SHARE Police radio communications can’t be made vulnerable to criminal behavior
Chicago police work the scene where a man was shot while driving in a silver Toyota on North La Salle Street in River North on Sept. 3.

Chicago police work the scene where a man was shot while driving in a silver Toyota on North La Salle Street in River North on Sept. 3.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

As leaders of our city’s public safety agencies, we are focused on making Chicago the safest big city in the country while protecting the welfare of our first responders. This focus is at the center of any decisions we make, including the decision to encrypt our radio communications.

For decades, unauthorized users have meddled with the operational security of our officers and first responders by having real-time access to the sensitive data shared over police radio channels. Numerous instances of individuals transmitting fake calls for service or disruptive messages have been observed by law enforcement and media alike.

Unauthorized users have also intentionally hijacked these radio transmissions by holding down the transmit buttons on their radios. In what is referred to as an “open key,” this activity prohibits our officers from transmitting or receiving communications over that channel. These life-threatening sabotage practices continuously create communication confusion and hamper the efforts of our officers in their response to emergencies.

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Beyond this, Chicago police officers have repeatedly found evidence that criminals have used police scanners to monitor police activity or evade officers, utilizing the very system set in place to coordinate public safety operations, to coordinate their own criminal activities.

These malicious attacks on our radio system put our officers and the public at risk. The utility of unencrypted radios for media outlets simply does not outweigh the potential harm to our public. We cannot truly be a safe city if we leave our radio communications vulnerable to criminal behavior.

Thankfully, this administration made completing the upgrade of secure communications a priority. Previous administrations had begun this work, but Mayor Lori Lightfoot finally invested in this technology, knowing it is a critical step forward toward community safety.

Transparency is another priority of this administration, and we understand there must be a compromise with the public and media to keep open access to transmissions while putting the safety of our first responders and city first. By establishing a brief delay in our radio dispatches, we can maintain operational security during emergency response situations, investigations, and tactical operations while still offering the public the opportunity to listen to radio communications.

Speculation that dispatchers and police are censoring publicly available delayed audio is misplaced. Withholding select snippets of delayed audio is designed to protect the privacy and personal health information of victims, witnesses, and citizens initiating 911 calls. It is a mechanism only to be used sparingly. Public safety agencies depend on clear and concise communications to respond to some of the most serious situations our community faces. All unedited recordings are still preserved for 90 days in a secure system that is available for FOIA requests and subpoenas. If identified through those processes, or investigations, unedited recordings are preserved longer for those purpose.

Many cities and municipalities across the country have similarly integrated encryption technology for many of the same reasons. This move will put Chicago on par with Denver, Colorado; Louisville, Kentucky; and San Francisco, California, among many other cities.

By eliminating rogue radio operators and criminal elements from using city radio frequencies, we are comforted by the fact that our brave first responders will be that much safer in conducting their sworn duties. By providing our first responders with protected communications, we are proactively protecting police operations, their lives and the overall welfare of our public safety agencies and city.

David Brown is superintendent of the Chicago Police Department. Richard Guidice is executive director of the Office of Emergency Management and Communications. Annastasia Walker is executive director of Public Safety Administration.

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The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

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