Newspapers, broadcast news outlets would get live access to scrambled police radio traffic under proposed Illinois law

A Chicago police officer’s radio is seen in a December 2023 photo published on CPD’s Facebook page. | Facebook

CHICAGO — An Illinois legislator has introduced a bill requiring local law enforcement agencies to provide newspapers and licensed broadcasters with live access to encrypted law enforcement radio systems.

Encryption technology scrambles radio transmissions so they can only be heard on special radios approved and owned by police departments. Emergency services, particularly police departments, have been encrypting their radio systems, which prevents the general public and reporters from hearing the activity.

The Chicago Police Department began encrypting some radio channels over a year ago. Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration claimed encoding was necessary because criminals were monitoring the airwaves and, at times, interrupting police radio traffic with stolen police radios or equipment purchased independently.

All 22 Chicago police district frequencies are encrypted. Many suburban police agencies have used encryption for years, and conversion to encrypted networks is becoming increasingly common.

The city of Chicago allows Broadcastify, a company that provides online access to radio frequencies nationwide, to stream the transmissions on a 30-minute delay. Most cities, however, provide no public access at all.

During the 2023 mayoral campaign, current Mayor Brandon Johnson said he would give the media real-time access to CPD’s radio activities. He further said that violence prevention groups also needed access to do their work.

But no changes have been made to the city’s encryption policy since he took office in May.

Now, Rep. La Shawn Ford (8th) has introduced legislation that would force local governments to provide “by license or otherwise” access to encrypted police radio transmissions to FCC-licensed broadcasters and to publishers that meet the state’s legal definition of a newspaper by January 1, 2025.

“I understand the desire to prevent members of the public from using real-time police scanner information to commit crimes or to evade law enforcement,” Ford said in a statement released by the Illinois Press Association. “Blocking accredited media from real time access is counter to governmental transparency and does not lend itself to the original stated purpose of the encryption program.”

“I would not be surprised if this legislation undergoes many transformations as it moves through the process,” Illinois Press Assn. President and CEO Don Craven told his membership in a January 4 letter.

One change that will be made: Ford’s proposal states that any local police agency that “encrypts police scanner transmissions” would be bound to provide access to certain media entities. Scanners, devices that allow people to hear radio traffic but not participate in it, are not encrypted—radio transmitters are.

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