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City radio system

The city is replacing the radios used by police officers and firefighters.

Emergency radio enthusiasts in Lincoln will soon lose live access to the city's primary police dispatch channels.

Instead, the Lincoln Police Department will publish an online feed that is delayed by 10 minutes — the expected response window for officers' highest-priority calls.

News outlets, including the Journal Star, will be allowed to maintain real-time access to the primary channels, both to ensure accountability and enable immediate community notification when situations broadly impact public safety.

The city's switch to a new, digital radio system this year offered the police department an opportunity to encrypt some, all or none of its radio channels, said Public Safety Director Tom Casady.

Casady and Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister said that prompted them to weigh concerns over privacy, officer safety and criminal apprehension against the merits of police department transparency.

"This (delayed feed) will be unedited, but will allow responding officers to arrive and control the most-dynamic incidents while preventing those intent on committing crime from listening to our response," Bliemeister said in a news release.

Before making the decision, department staff solicited input from local media, surveyed other departments and researched the issue, the chief said.

Lincoln police determined that online scanner applications were being used by arsonists, bank robbers, suicidal people and a murderer.

"Our officers are asked to change their tactics when responding to the most-dynamic incidents because of the easy access," the chief said. "The inability to openly communicate with other responding officers and dispatchers, for fear of informing criminals of our response, is a safety issue for our staff." 

Elsewhere in the country, police departments are split on the issue.

Some — like in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, Illinois — have totally encrypted their channels, according to a survey conducted by LPD. But in Norman, Oklahoma, only specialized team channels are encrypted, with the primary channels remaining open.

Among 412 people who responded to an unscientific, online poll by the Journal Star, 72 percent believed that live access to the primary channels should remain publicly available. That poll could not control against people, such as scanner enthusiasts, who might be more inclined that others to want live access.

Only 11 percent of survey respondents wanted a delayed feed, and 15 percent thought all channels should be encrypted.

Bliemeister said he understands the importance of providing avenues for Lincoln residents to see what challenges police officers encounter during their shifts.

The change will not affect the Lincoln Fire and Rescue channels, Casady said.

He believes this decision is a fair middle ground, he said: "It's an attempt to make sure that the public still has access to that information and still protect our officers and protect emergent incidents from being exposed prematurely."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or rjohnson@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.

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