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Could Omaha Police scanners go silent to the listening public?

OPD considers encrypting its main public radio channels
Posted at 5:55 PM, Jul 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-30 12:20:28-04

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — People who see Omaha police cruisers dart by with sirens blaring might soon have to wait a little longer to figure out what’s going on.

The Omaha Police Department, after weeks of public records requests from 3 News Now Investigators, confirmed that it is considering making its main public police radio channels private. Department spokesman Lt. Neal Bonacci called the discussions preliminary.

"What we’re exploring right now is encrypting those (public channels), so what that would mean is that would take that open or public access away,” Bonacci said.

But 3 News Now spoke with officers off-camera who said the process was farther along than we were told. They said changes to the radio system could be implemented as early as a matter of months, and that they might not cost enough to require approval by the Omaha City Council.

Advocates expressed concern about the uncertainty, including ACLU Nebraska executive director Danielle Conrad, who said, “I think any time that any entity of government moves toward less transparency, that’s got to be a red flag.”

Today, people listen on police radio scanners and cell phone apps. Some check Twitter and Facebook feeds for the latest local news. Others watch the news.

But what happens if the public can’t follow these feeds in real-time? What might be lost if the public’s police feed goes dark?

Omaha Police say they do not yet know what such a change would mean. Police elsewhere have cut public feeds altogether. Some share info only with newsrooms. Many still offer public feeds by cell phone app but delay those feeds up to 30 minutes.

Adding a delay would address a key concern of police officers and their union — that some suspects know when they’re coming before officers arrive.

“We do see this happening very often that folks, the criminal element, are utilizing these scanner apps,” Bonacci said. “That’s happened a handful of times. … I’ve made an arrest where the arrestee actually had the scanner app open when we made the arrest.”

OPD wouldn’t say how long it has been exploring whether to encrypt its main public radio channels. The department currently operates five public radio channels, one for each of the city’s five police precincts. Officers also have access to encrypted channels for tactical use.

Police Chief Todd Schmaderer declined to be interviewed for this story, saying he’d likely have the final say and that he plans to meet with stakeholders before deciding.

Omaha wouldn’t be the first large police department in Nebraska to go fully encrypted. That distinction belongs to the Lincoln Police Department, which did it first.

They finished the switch in 2019. Acting Police Chief Brian Jackson remembers hearing concerns very similar to Omaha’s, suspects leaving before officers arrived and worries about ambushes.

Since the switch, he said his officers have made arrests where suspects have a police scanner app open when the police arrive and don’t realize that their feed is behind.

“We certainly have to remember that the purpose of the radio system is the communication capabilities of our first responders, and that’s our primary focus,” he said.

But he said Lincoln Police have tried to find “a balance between that function and the desire for the public to be aware of what we’re doing.” Lincoln does that, he said, by offering media access to police radios that can follow its encrypted main channels in real-time.

The public can listen by scanner app, but the feed is delayed up to 25 minutes. Police supervisors can cut it temporarily if needed for officer safety.

Still, the people behind a local scanner social media account say they’ve had to call Lincoln police to get them to turn the feed on again days later. They worry what people are missing.

Bonacci says Omaha Police welcome public input on possibly encrypting the public radio channels. He suggested people call the police department’s public information office.

However, he says he didn’t know when police would’ve sought that public input if 3 News Now and social media’s Omaha Scanner hadn’t told the police we were both running stories.

“There’s nothing that we’re trying to hide,” he said. “I get that the public’s going to ask when was our turn to have a say.”

Precious McKesson, who leads the North Omaha Neighborhood Alliance, just wants to be sure she can check the web when she sees police drive by. It helps her decide if her family is safe.

“We want the citizens safe,” she said. “We want the police safe. We want to make sure everybody is safe, but we also need to know what’s going on, and not 30 minutes after it happens.”

Omaha police say they don’t yet know what the switch would cost or how they would pay for it. They say their current radios would work.

Each would need to be reprogrammed by hand, which is why leaders say the change would take some time. They also say they might not make a change.

Said Conrad, “It’s important we press pause, we learn more, we see what the options are and we have a robust community conversation about whether this is right for Omaha.”

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