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Over and out? Police radio encryption bill left in limbo after failing to pass both houses in Albany


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New York lawmakers failed to pass the “Keep Police Radio Public Act” to prevent the NYPD and other police departments from shutting the press out of police radio access amid encryption efforts.

Only one of the two houses in Albany passed the bill before the 2024 legislative session ended on Saturday morning. As a result, it will have to be reintroduced in the next session that starts in January 2025.

The act would have provided credentialed media access to encrypted police radio channels, and compelled the NYPD to allow access to New York City media that have listened to police radio channels as a source of news for more than 90 years.

The state Senate approved its version of the bill, sponsored by Senate Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris of Queens, by a vote of 60-40. It was then sent to the Assembly, where it was sponsored by Assemblywoman Karines Reyes of the Bronx. However, a spokesperson for Reyes said the bill came in late and failed to get enough support to be discharged to a vote.

“It took forever to get a bill number and so it was hard to circulate for support,” the spokesperson said. “The expectation is the assemblywoman will continue to seek support over the weeks and months, [and get] the opportunity to come back with new legislation [in which] more people will be on it.”

Press advocates hope that the bill can be reintroduced in a special session should Gov. Kathy Hochul convene one later this year for unrelated issues such as finding an alternative funding solution for the MTA after Hochul indefinitely delayed congestion pricing.

Gianaris said he was proud to have sponsored and passed the legislation in the Senate.

“I am proud the Senate passed my legislation preserving access to encrypted police radio, which is critical for the accountability a free press provides,” said Gianaris. “As encrypted radio usage grows, this legislation would strike the proper balance between legitimate law enforcement needs and the rights and interests of New Yorkers.”

The City Council has been critical of the NYPD for failing to have a plan for including the press in communications. Speaker Adrienne Adams castigated police officials at a budget hearing in March, but has not yet offered any local solutions to the issue.

The City Council issued a brief statement regarding the failure of the state police radio encryption bill: “We continue to explore solutions to preserve transparency of NYPD radio communications and avoid negatively impacting volunteer first responders, accountability, and public safety.”

Other leaders have remained silent even though most of the state legislative contingent supports the bill.

All four of the co-sponsors of Reyes’ version of the act are from Brooklyn. Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso had not comment despite having four days to reply to questions.

The New York Media Consortium, comprised of eight press organizations, are leading the effort to maintain press access to police radio transmissions. Leaders of those groups sounded off after the failed attempt to pass the bill.

Diane Kennedy, president of the New York News Publishers Association said that the legislation still has a chance in the next session because it was passed in the Senate.

“In passing Sen. Gianaris’s bill, the New York State Senate recognized the importance of maintaining journalists’ access to police radio communications,” Kennedy said. “We look forward to working with Assemblywoman Karines Reyes as she continues her efforts to get the bill passed by the New York State Assembly. We urge the City of New York to preserve journalists’ access to police radio communications in a safe and secure manner that will benefit both law enforcement and the public.”

‘The fight is not over’

Most impacted are those working on the streets of New York City, especially press photographers who are normally first on the scene of most incidents. Bruce Cotler, president of the New York Press Photographers Association, noted that the “fight is not over.”

“We are of course disappointed that the legislation did not yet pass to allow the press to continue to have access to police communications, but the struggle is far from over,” said Cotler. “The bill did pass the senate and only needs an assembly vote. We believe assembly leaders will realize that it is possible to maintain the safety of officers while providing access to communications to the press to preserve transparency that is paramount to the public’s right to know.”

David Cruz, president of the New York Press Club, echoed his sentiments.

“This bill is a no-brainer,” said Cruz. “Continued access to police frequencies speeds up the release of critical information to make sure the public is quickly informed. We hope the legislature takes up this consequential bill in the next session. The future of news coverage depends on it.”

NYPD officials have opposed the bill; in the past, they have questioned the vetting of journalists credentialed by the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, and police officials were seeking a delay in radio transmissions.

They also echo Mayor Eric Adams, saying “bad guys” use radio transmissions against them and it risks the safety of responding officers.

The NYPD has yet to provide a plan for keeping the media in the loop to maintain transparency, despite their billion-dollar radio upgrade being in its sixth year. NYPD officials said they planned to have a plan “after the encryption program is completed,” by late 2025.

Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel of the National Press Photographers Association called on news organizations to push for the legislation in the future.

“It is very unfortunate that despite our efforts, we were not able to get this crucial bill passed this session,” said Osterreicher. “Hopefully, news organizations throughout the state will realize the detrimental effects that encryption will have on their news-gathering abilities and loudly voice support for this legislation the next time it comes up for a vote.”

Lloyd Mitchell, a freelance photographer who contributes to amNewYork Metro and a member of the Press Photographers Government Relations Committee, said failure to gain radio access will damage his efforts at informing the public of the news.

“I am disappointed in the Assembly essentially giving power to the NYPD and making our jobs even more difficult,” Mitchell said. “The assembly should have been an ally, and my compliments go to Brooklyn and Bronx delegations for attempting to spearhead the legislation. We are optimistic that those who might’ve opposed the bill will realize the importance of it in the next session. If they don’t, they will have no one else to blame but themselves when critical incidents go unreported in a timely manner, with police controlling the narrative,” he added.

Olly Scootercaster, owner of the Freedom News Service, says her ability to provide news overnight and daily to the public will be compromised without radio access.
 
“We have crossed over to the darkness, quite literally, Brooklyn is gone from accountability as it’s now fully encrypted,” she said. “Nobody, besides police, know what’s happening on the streets. The NYPD appears to be rapidly developing a larger media team, which might be what they expect to replace journalists with. Journalism works because it’s multiple independent witnesses documenting one event. If it’s only the NYPD documenting the event, you only get the NYPD’s story.”