As Lincoln switches to a new digital radio system by early 2018, public access to police radio dispatches may end.

The Journal Star reported the new radio system gives public safety officials the ability to encrypt these channels, preventing members of the public from listening in on the police officers. 

However, encrypting all channels is an unnecessary step. Officers will still have the ability to move their conversations to tactical or private channels to protect the public as well as other officers and first responders from danger – which should always be the primary objective.

With the explosion of websites and apps that stream dispatch radio in real time, more people than ever before can listen to emergency personnel’s work as it happens. These have become a popular source of useful public safety information, such as the location of police activity and traffic accidents to avoid on a commute, along with comical calls about insignificant nuisances.

Everyday citizens use police scanners to know what’s going on around them and as a means of keeping their first responders accountable. The assurance from Public Safety Director Tom Casady that fire department channels will remain live and publicly accessible is a positive development.

Transparency is always the best policy, and Lincoln’s public safety officials have offered suggestions that will allow for the general public to have access, including a 10-minute delayed live feed online and encrypting a limited number of channels. But the more real-time access, the better.

Law enforcement officials have a very clear mission, swearing to protect and serve before being given a badge, sidearm and first assignment. They take that duty seriously, and their reasons for wanting to encrypt or delay some or all channels have merit.

To be clear, Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister raised valid concerns when discussing this with the Journal Star. He cited the privacy of possible crime victims, suspects using scanners to avoid capture and possible safety problems with officers and dispatchers not being on the same page at or en route to the scene of an incident.

Those must be addressed, and the encryption of only a limited number of channels may be the appropriate solution. But such action cannot come at a great loss for the general public, who, it must be noted, are footing the bill for the upgrade after approving a quarter-cent sales tax increase in 2015.

While the safety of everyone involved is paramount and must be ensured, Lincoln residents need to have sufficient access to know where and how their police officers, firefighters and other first responders are doing their jobs. The public’s ability to tune in, as long as it doesn’t jeopardize safety, must be preserved.

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