Failure to communicate: CPD radio system exposed during protests, looting

WGN Investigates

CHICAGO — A long-standing weakness in the Chicago Police Department’s radio system was once again exposed this weekend at the height of confrontational clashes between police and protesters.

In volatile situation, a police radio can be a lifeline. It’s how officers quickly respond to trouble, but also call for help when they feel threatened.

While every officer had riot gear this weekend, they didn’t all have radios.

John Catanzara is the president of the police union.

 “Every two officers were issued one radio,” he said. “I think that’s a major safety concern and this isn’t a new problem.”

Sources told WGN Investigates that several times in recent days someone, or several people, briefly blocked police frequencies with their own transmissions.

Catanzara said he believes it was tech savvy agitators who commandeered the communication system in quick bursts.

 “Someone decided to play some music in the background.  There were obviously derivative (comments) about the mayor and about the superintendent and some obvious suggestions and advice about police tactics,” he said.  “I don’t think it was always Antifa but there were outside people who seem to want to bring back the 1968 convention tactics.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said it didn’t cause any real problems.

 “I think there were some inappropriate people that were sporadically on the lines,” she said.  “It didn’t hinder any communications with officers in the field or interfere with deployments.”

It can happen because Chicago police communications aren’t encrypted. 

They can be monitored with scanners and via websites. Police movements can be tracked.  And with a few modifications, unauthorized people can transmit on the frequencies.

Several other big cities, including Denver, now use encrypted frequencies making them harder to penetrate.

Encryption also poses challenges.  For example, during this weekend’s unrest, Chicago police were backed-up by state police and Cook County Sheriff’s.  They all need to be able to communicate on the same frequencies.

John O’Malley is a law enforcement analyst for WGN News.

 “When you have a massive amount of people who don’t normally work together, that’s hard to get the communication onto an encrypted channel,” he said.

Typically, the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications can determine whether a transmission came from a police radio or an outsider.

WGN Investigates was told the source of this weekend’s transmissions has not yet been determined.

A police spokesman said the department is exploring the use of encrypted communications for day-to-day operations but there’s no timeline for when it may happen.

Government watchdogs and the media are typically opposed to encrypted communications because it means the public can’t hear in real-time how police are operating.

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