In a striking display of misplaced priorities, New York City has recently chosen to funnel a staggering $390 million into the New York Police Department (NYPD) for a new encrypted radio system, even as the city grapples with severe budget cuts impacting vital public services like libraries. This move has sparked outrage and concern among New Yorkers and press freedom activists, highlighting a troubling trend toward increased police secrecy and reduced public oversight.
While public libraries across the city are forced to shut their doors on Sundays due to budget constraints, hindering access to crucial resources for houseless and low-income residents, the NYPD’s hefty investment in encrypting police communications raises serious questions about transparency and public accountability. Activists like Andy Ratto from the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.) have voiced concerns that this shift towards encrypted radio communications could significantly hinder newsgathering and police oversight, key elements of a healthy democracy.
The importance of accessible police communications has been demonstrated in past instances, such as the critical role it played in obtaining footage of Eric Garner’s tragic death at the hands of the NYPD. The decision to encrypt police radios follows a worrying pattern observed since the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, where encrypted communications have been increasingly adopted by police departments nationwide, often under the guise of operational security.
City council members like Robert Holden and Vickie Paladino have criticized the encryption policy, emphasizing the necessity of maintaining an open channel between the police and the public. The move by the NYPD to limit media access to live police communications could potentially obscure the public’s view of crime in the city, a concern echoed by an anonymous City Hall official who cited Mayor Eric Adams’ preference for limiting negative media coverage of the city’s crime.
This decision also comes at a time when the NYPD’s track record with transparency is under scrutiny, with the department currently facing legal action for delaying tens of thousands of Freedom of Information Law requests. The proposed solution of accessing archived radio dispatches through these requests seems impractical, given the NYPD’s history of delays in responding to such inquiries.
In response to growing concerns, New York State Sen. Michael Gianaris has introduced the “Keep Police Radio Public Act,” aiming to ensure continued public and press access to police radio communications. This legislation aims to strike a balance between law enforcement needs and the rights of New Yorkers, mirroring similar efforts in other states.
The contrasting decisions to slash library budgets while heavily investing in police communications encryption lay bare the city’s skewed budgetary choices, favoring increased policing over essential public services. This not only impacts community access to educational resources but also raises alarms about the eroding transparency and accountability of law enforcement in one of America’s largest cities. As the debate continues, it’s crucial for New Yorkers and their representatives to scrutinize and challenge these budgetary decisions that profoundly affect the city’s social fabric and democratic principles.