Why you should care that the NYPD is encrypting their radio communication
I looked at the data and found cops have only arrested 77 people in the last 16 years for illegal radio use
On a Friday evening this July, I was sitting alone in a windowless room at 1 Police Plaza, working a shift at ‘the shack’ for the Daily News. As the evening approached and things were likely to get busy, I turned on my radio scanner that I bought for $92.63 in 2013 when I still had an Amazon account. It quickly dashed through the familiar police broadcasts I’d used for years to get to the scenes of crashes, shootings, protests, and other important stories (where I’d much rather be than with my only companion, a fly I’d named Jeremiah).
An experienced listener can mostly tune out the chatter and quickly turn up the volume after hearing a flurry of elevated voices or a certain series of tones or radio codes that announce a potentially newsworthy event.
The scanner arrived at the radio channel that covers a big section of Brooklyn. Instead of the usual voices, I heard a prerecorded message for cops telling anyone still listening to exchange their radio for a new one.
The NYPD had finally begun to roll out their new $390 million encrypted radio system, and I felt part of Brooklyn fall off my mental map of the city.
Yesterday, Chief Ruben Beltran appeared before members of the city council to defend the new system. He offered some anecdotes focused on the safety of police officers, and said that a crew of Brooklyn smoke shop robbers had been busted – caught with police radios – soon after the encryption rollout started. He said they’d used scanners similar to the one I bought on Amazon to stay a step ahead of cops.
Today, I looked through the NYPD’s own arrest data: Since 2007, they’ve nabbed just 77 people for “unlawful possession of a radio device.”
This year, eight people have been arrested on the charge. All but three of those arrested in the past 16 years were men, most Black or Hispanic, according to the data. While simply possessing a radio is not a crime, it is a misdemeanor offense if you’re planning on using it to do other crimes.
The data likely excludes instances where tow truck operators were arrested for possessing the radios, which is a separate offense.
Yes, there have been some notable incidents in which police radios were used in other crimes. Some of them are just unauthorized horseplay with stolen radios. Cops are typically docked 15 vacation days for losing a department radio, the same penalty for unauthorized use of physical force which results in an injury.
That being said, they’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
I can’t properly report on crashes, protests, and other newsworthy events if I’m not there when things are happening or very soon after. The information which is published by the NYPD comes hours later, and in some cases weeks or days later. Sometimes it’s not published at all. There are details that I can only get when I’m there on time, and without access to the radio broadcasts, things are going to get missed.