GRAND BOULEVARD — The city’s move to restrict access to police scanner communication could make it more difficult for organizations working to deescalate violence in neighborhoods.
Local police scanners have long been accessible to the public, but the city quietly began plans earlier this year to revoke that access. Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration has argued the move will keep first responders safe, safeguard sensitive information about police movements and put Chicago in line with the practices of other major cities.
All transmissions will be encrypted by early 2023, according to police and the city’s emergency management department. After that, the only public access will be through a website operating on a 30-minute delay, which also will give city officials an opportunity to redact certain information.
Lightfoot doubled down on the decision last week, rebuffing news media pushing to maintain access for their reporting.
Attorney Steven Mandell is representing several media outlets, including Block Club, who are fighting the city on the matter. Mandell said if the decision stands it will only further erode public trust.
“Even with the 30-minute delay, the argument falls like a house of cards. Imagine an active shooter situation, like Highland Park. Getting a transmission 30 minutes later when you have a shooter at large would be a nightmare,” said Mandell, a partner at Mandell and Menkes, LLC.
Real-time access to scanner traffic also is a primary tool for violence prevention outreach workers to monitor brewing trouble and emergency calls, which often enables them to show up to scenes before police do, they said.
Tio Hardiman, executive director of Violence Interrupters, and his team have been working on prevention and deescalation for nearly 20 years. He said he understands Lightfoot’s decision but hopes the move is temporary.
The violence prevention expert and college lecturer took Lightfoot to task in June for being slow to address the uptick in crime on city trains and buses. He and his team spent the summer patrolling hotspots along the Red Line and elsewhere on the South Side.
“We have a lot of people working the streets here and we’re on top of a lot of incidents, even potential ones. Hopefully she can sort everything out so we can all stay on the same page and prevent violence on the front end,” Hardiman said.
Watch Guard, a volunteer organization that has been patrolling South Side neighborhoods for five years, was caught off guard by the mayor’s decision, leader Marquinn McDonald said.
“One night we were out over the summer, we noticed that we weren’t hearing anything,” McDonald said. “We thought it was a glitch at first. I wound up hearing about the plans to encrypt stuff from some friends who were on the force.”
Working fast is key, McDonald said. It means outreach workers can diffuse tense situations before police arrive, offer support to shaken up neighbors and act as a buffer between residents and officers.
The group is expanding its services to the West Side, but getting to the scene of an emergency in time will be impossible if they must rely on a delayed broadcast, McDonald said.
“If you have officers on a particular beat and they’re all working the job, it could possibly take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour for those officers to get to you,” McDonald said. “But when you have violence prevention groups trained in conflict resolution, first aid, and gunshot wound training, they get in place, get information and calm the situation down.”
McDonald said the police scanners have been invaluable in deescalating potentially violent situations, recalling an incident last summer where he and his team intervened in a domestic incident in which they arrived on the scene ahead of police and were able to separate the couple and eased tensions before the situation turned ugly.
“Let’s put this in perspective: you’ve got the city’s decision to encrypt the scanners, you have a shortage of police officers and in the meantime you’ve got violence prevention groups out here working, sometimes in collaboration with the police. This makes everyone’s job harder,” McDonald said.
Mayoral candidate and 4th Ward Ald. Sophia King told Block Club though she is inclined to protect certain police transmissions, she sees the city’s decision as “another failure” to include those affected.
“This is not a new idea and there is no reason besides election-year politics to try to dictate huge change in policy without collaboration,” King said. “Community members, especially those actively working to interrupt, prevent and respond restoratively to violence should have the chance to hear the rationale — with data — and offer ideas to address the negative impact.”
Mayoral spokesperson Cesar Rodriguez declined further comment, referring to Lightfoot’s comments following last week’s City Council meeting.
City officials say people have misused scanners to send fake emergency calls or hold down a transmit button that prevent officer from using their radios properly, the Sun-Times reported.
“And then what I found out was on a routine basis, you have individuals in our community blowing whistles, air horns and doing other things to interrupt and disrupt the communications from the dispatchers to the police officers and so forth,” Lightfoot said last week. “And then finally, some people are even taking it even further and doing things like calling 10-1’s, meaning officer down, to send officers on a false mission.”
Police Supt. David Brown made similar points in a Nov. 17 letter to Mandell, adding that the decision was made to keep private information confidential and to stop criminals from using the scanners to monitor police — which has happened frequently, Brown said.
“A police scanner is audible in a widely available video of a shooting by a gang member from his car in Irving Park in 2015. Encryption eliminates the opportunity that criminals will use city scanners to monitor or evade police,” wrote Brown.
Local media companies are still battling the city’s decision. For now, groups like Watch Guard and Violence Interrupters will have to rely on their own sources to keep them in the know.
“We’re gonna keep moving forward. We know how to intercept whispers on the streets in order to get to the front end because of the relationships we’ve built over time. There’s an old school saying called ‘the grapevine.’ That’s what we’ll be relying on,” Hardiman said.