NYPD's new radio encryption plan faces backlash at City Council hearing for possibly shutting out press, public

A New York Police Department (NYPD) officer speaks on his radio in Times Square in New York City.
A New York Police Department (NYPD) officer speaks on his radio in Times Square in New York City. Photo credit Andrew Burton/Getty Images

NEW YORK (1010 WINS/WCBS 880) – A public City Council hearing on Monday debated the NYPD's plan to encrypt its radio transmissions by the end of 2024, a decision drawing criticism from news organizations.

This controversial decision, for which the hearing was held at 250 Broadway, 16th Floor, Manhattan, has already resulted in the encryption of 10 NYPD precinct radio frequencies in Brooklyn since July 17, causing growing unease among news organizations.

"We didn't set up this system to stop the press from doing their job. We set up this system so that way it needed to be upgraded and because other bad actors use our radio systems against us," NYPD Information Technology Chief Ruben Beltran said during the hearing.

Beltran, leading the NYPD's $1.5 billion radio upgrade initiative begun in 2020, defended the department's transparency and detailed the dangers of an unencrypted system, including fake distress calls and direct threats to officer safety.

“We’ve seen fake officer down transmissions to draw officers away from a given area. Officers' lives being threatened over the air, fake bomb threats or simply jamming our radio frequency, temporarily disrupting our ability to respond,” Beltran said.

The move to encrypt, ending a transparency practice dating back to 1932, has significant implications for journalistic access.

“Nowhere in any of this testimony have we ever heard that access to information by a journalist has caused harm to a police officer,” David Donovan, president of the New York State Broadcasters Association in Brooklyn, said.

News organizations will be left without real-time updates on crimes and emergencies.

"The only real-time information that you're going to get about activity is from bystanders using cell phones and posting on social media, or to the police using their social media as far as transparency,” Donovan said.

News organizations, nine of them had joined forces earlier this week to create the New York Media Consortium -- of which 1010 WINS and WCBS 880 are members -- with the goal of convincing the NYPD to allow real-time access to radio transmissions.

Ben Mevorach, the Vice President of News, New York, for 1010 WINS and WCBS 880, part of the New York Media Consortium, emphasized the necessity of balancing officer safety with press freedom.

"We absolutely understand and support the NYPD’s need and desire to keep their officers safe but they need to recognize that this issue goes to the very core of freedom of the press, government accountability, and the public’s right to know," he said in a statement on Wednesday.

The NYPD has suggested a compromise with "delayed" radio transmissions of up to 30 minutes to prevent misuse by criminals, but this proposal has not satisfied news organizations.

In response, the NYPD also issued a statement emphasizing its commitment to safety and transparency last week. “The safety of our first responders and the community will always remain the NYPD’s top priority," the statement read. "The Department works day-in and day-out to be transparent and build trust with the public. We are continuing to explore whether certain media access can be facilitated, including utilizing methods that are already being used in jurisdictions with encrypted radios.”

Beltran, at the hearing, reiterated his understanding of the transparency concerns but maintained that the decision is due to security needs.

“The NYPD is the most transparent police force in the country, and we operate under numerous levels of oversight and accountability,” Beltran said.

“Saying that, oh, because we have bad guys, we're gonna deny reporters access,” Donovan said. “ I think that's not where you want to go.”

The NYPD is investing $390 million in its new encrypted radio system, ending a decades-long tradition of public and press access to police dispatches.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Andrew Burton/Getty Images