State Sen. Michael Gianaris on Monday outlined a bill to preserve the news media’s access to police radio communications, as the New York City Police Department defended its controversial $500 million plan to upgrade and encrypt its radio frequencies.
A city police official, Chief Ruben Beltran of the Information Technology Bureau, said in a City Council hearing on Monday afternoon that the update to the aging analog communication system is crucial to advance public safety in the city. The update has already been launched in sections of Brooklyn, blacking out press access there.
Beltran said the outgoing radio system is ripe for abuse by criminal groups who can monitor the communications, or by troublemakers who can interfere with the country’s largest police department by making false reports of officers down, or by simply clogging the frequencies.
“The NYPD is the most transparent police force in the country,” Beltran claimed in the hearing. “Allowing the status quo to continue will unnecessarily put our city at risk.”
The NYPD’s move — which met skeptical questions from city lawmakers members in the hearing — is part of a nationwide tilt toward encrypting police radio scanners.
Police radio communications have long been used by reporters and the public to keep track of mayhem in the city, and media advocates have said the plan to block the press from listening in would deliver a blow to police transparency and end nearly a century of scanner access.
“New Yorkers need more transparency from the NYPD, not less,” Daniel Schwarz, the New York Civil Liberties Union’s senior privacy and technology strategist, said in a statement before the hearing.
Schwarz said in written testimony to the Council that police scanner access had played a role in informing the news media in real time about the police killing of Eric Garner and the shootings of Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell — notorious moments in NYPD history.
Gianaris, a progressive Queens Democrat and the deputy Senate majority leader, said his legislation would thread the needle of press and public safety concerns: allowing credentialed news media to follow the police radio in real time, and letting the public listen in on a 10-minute delay.
“They were identifying a very specific problem and then proposing a very broad solution to deal with it,” Gianaris said in an interview, referring to the NYPD.
“We thought that this is simple: We can come up with something that continues to allow for public accountability and transparency while understanding the need for certain protections,” he added.
The bill, the Keep Police Radio Public Act, was formally introduced in the Senate on Friday. Under the bill, law enforcement would be required to maintain press access to police scanners, according to Gianaris’ office.
Most police departments in the state have unencrypted police scanners, and would only be affected if they moved to change their systems, the senator’s office said.
Gianaris said he hopes to pass the bill during next year’s legislative session, which begins this winter. The update to the NYPD’s radio system is expected to unfold slowly over the next few years.
After the Council hearing, Councilwoman Jennifer Gutierrez, a Brooklyn Democrat and chairwoman of the Technology Committee, issued a statement describing Beltran’s testimony as “laughable” in its insistence that the NYPD is committed to transparency.
“I deeply believe in the urgency and importance of technological upgrades for city agencies, especially those doing lifesaving work,” she said in the statement, “but I’m concerned that this administration is once again introducing technology without due consideration to freedom of the press.”
With Rocco Parascandola