John Roca cruised through Midtown Manhattan on a recent night just as the streetlights flicked on, his camera in the back seat of his sedan.
It had been a slow day for Mr. Roca, a photojournalist who has chased breaking news in New York City for a half-century. He knows what fewer and fewer reporters do: how to decipher the codes that come over a police scanner, a device that broadcasts radio communications between 911 dispatchers and officers who respond to emergencies.
There is an art to monitoring the radios, Mr. Roca said, and he has a knack for knowing what mayhem might “make ink.” At 7:54 p.m., as he drove south along Ninth Avenue near 34th Street, a “10-30” dispatch came over: code for a robbery in progress. Officers were heading to the scene.
“This one might have legs,” Mr. Roca said, and he punched the car’s accelerator.
His way of news gathering has existed for decades. But a new $500 million radio system the New York Police Department introduced this past summer encrypts officers’ communications, meaning the public, including members of the press, will no longer be able to listen in. The project will take at least five years to complete, though some frequencies have already gone dark.
The debate over whether to encode the transmissions is playing out across the country. Most law enforcement agencies in California have hidden their real-time communications to comply with a 2020 state mandate meant to protect the names of victims and witnesses that are spoken over the airwaves. The Chicago Police Department was expected to fully encrypt its system by this year, making transmissions public only after a 30-minute delay.
Those who oppose the shift — including elected officials, news outlets and advocates for demanding more accountability from law enforcement — argue that encryption inhibits such transparency, erodes trust in the police and prevents crucial information from being reported quickly.
The transmissions are monitored not only by newshounds, but by neighborhood groups and people who make a hobby of being tuned into city life.
“The idea that we’re going to turn this sort of vital information into something that’s only accessible to the public at the whims of police is just truly chilling,” said Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project in New York.
In July, the New York City Council called the encryption move “troubling” and said there “should have been a comprehensive plan to maintain access and transparency rather than it being an afterthought.” The body’s public safety committee plans to discuss the new system next week.
Chief Ruben Beltran, who leads the Police Department’s Information Technology Bureau, said the department needed a system that was faster, more reliable and more secure.
It had been too easy for outsiders to disrupt transmissions, he said in an interview. Before, anyone could buy a radio for as little as $40 and, with a bit of research, learn how to call in fake emergencies. Those interruptions have blocked other vital calls.
Chief Beltran’s bureau established a better system for tracking bogus calls in 2021. There were at least 58 as of Oct. 23, according to department data.
Several were reviewed by The New York Times: In one, on June 17, someone falsely reported a “10-13,” the code for an officer in distress.
Six days later, a prankster cursed as he played music in the background of a call, holding down the transmission button so that no one could break in. The episode jammed the airwaves for about five minutes, an eternity in police communications, Chief Beltran said.
The move signals the end of an era for Mr. Roca. He bought his first police scanner in 1968, at 16, and biked through Brooklyn chasing news.
In the 55 years since, he has captured some of New York’s most memorable photos: TheAvianca plane crash on Long Island in 1990 that killed 73 people who were on board; Michael Jackson after he collapsed onstage in 1995; and, in 2003, a full-grown tiger in a Harlem building as it stared down an officer through a fourth-floor apartment window.
“This scanner has changed the paper on numerous occasions,” said Mr. Roca, a former Daily News photographer, as he pointed to the device bolted to his car console.
He pulled a portable radio out of his breast pocket. “No well-dressed man should be without one like this,” he said.
The way the nation’s biggest police force communicates has evolved over the past 200 years. In the early 1800s, officers blew whistles and rapped their nightsticks to alert people to crimes. In the late 19th century, they began to use call boxes, booths where they could send telegraphs or dial a station house.
The radio system Mr. Roca relies on originated when President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited New York for the July 11, 1936, opening of the Triborough Bridge. Four thousand people drank beer and ate cold cuts on Randall’s Island as Roosevelt’s motorcade crossed the East River.
A police vehicle outfitted with the new technology was in the procession. As soon as Roosevelt crossed, “The word to open the bridge to toll traffic was flashed from a special short-wave field station to police radio cars and motorcycles,” according to a front-page article in The Times the next day.
“It was the first time the Police Department has used radio transmission in the field, and was said to represent the beginning of two-way communication here,” the article continued.
At his office last month, Chief Beltran picked a Motorola MX-350 up off his desk. The clunky hand-held radio, roughly the size of a Chihuahua, was the same model he used in the 1980s when he joined the force.
The chief, a 38-year department veteran and longtime technology buff, knows every facet of the vast communications network and how it functions: A call from one of the 42,000 hand-held radios, or one of the 3,400 in boats, helicopters, patrol cars and other vehicles, is picked up by antennas throughout New York, then transmitted to a dispatcher, all in nanoseconds.
But the network was overdue for an upgrade, Chief Beltran said. The decades-old analog system used outdated copper wire circuitry that is susceptible to harsh weather and takes longer to repair.
As of now, there is no way New Yorkers can listen to encrypted communications. Ideas to increase transparency have been batted around: a broadcast delay, where sensitive information is redacted before being broadcast publicly; a phone application that allows accredited reporters to listen in, perhaps in real time.
“There are a gamut of options that we have the capabilities to support,” Chief Beltran said, but those “are policy decisions based on public safety” by elected officials.
At a news conference in July, Mayor Eric Adams said that “bad guys” listened to the radios and that “I have to make sure that bad guys don’t continue to be one up on us.” He did not say whether reporters or members of the public would have access to these communications.
Mr.Cahn of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project said the mayor’s reasoning undermines New Yorkers’ desire for greater law enforcement accountability.
The police send millions of radio calls every year, yet officials can only identify a small number of problematic communications, Mr. Cahn said. That is not enough to justify the half-billion dollar system, which he said was too much money “to pay for them to have greater impunity and greater opacity.”
Mr. Roca’s livelihood depends on his ability to hear what’s happening and then see it firsthand.
On his rounds this night, he arrived at a Target store on West 34th Street within nine minutes of hearing a robbery report over the radio. He waited outside with his camera strapped around his neck and the chatter of his pocket police radio audible, but the suspect had fled.
Mr. Roca was back in his car when, at 8:12 p.m., another call came in: reports of someone threatening to jump from a building on West 25th Street. Seconds later, a dispatch from central said someone had been pushed, or jumped, onto the subway tracks.
“This is shaping up to be a busy night,” he said. “Roll the dice. Where do we want to go next?”