Police scanner traffic was a steady background noise in the newsroom where I started my career. We did our best to make sure the radios never went unattended. The idea was that something could happen at any moment, and it was important that we were covering newsworthy situations as accurately and quickly as we could.
That speaks to the value of scanner traffic. It gives the public timely information and a clear view of what law enforcement agencies are doing with the funds and authority with which they're entrusted.
So, let’s talk about what’s happening in and around Omaha.
The Switch to Delayed Feeds
This week, the Omaha Police Department and Douglas County Sheriff’s Office switched to an encrypted feed so that real-time scanner traffic is no longer publicly available. Instead, both agencies are providing public feeds that are delayed by 15 minutes.
There’s a caveat with OPD’s approach. More on that in a second.
When we learned the agencies were considering the change, we reached out to Omaha Police Chief Schmaderer and Douglas County Sheriff Aaron Hanson to relay concerns about the impact on transparency and accountability. As we put in a letter to Sheriff Hanson, “this waiting period translates to drivers missing a chance to learn about an accident before they are stuck in traffic, journalists missing crucial moments that would benefit from an independent camera at a scene, and Douglas County residents missing out on timely social media explanations for situations that might soon result in numerous unnecessary calls to dispatchers.”
Both agencies, following the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office before them, say public safety concerns motivated the switch. Their argument is that real-time audio can put officers at risk or help people who are actively committing crimes in evading officers. Previously those concerns have been addressed by temporarily switching to a secure channel, and we’ve told law enforcement that was a better approach than entirely cutting off live access.
OPD Providing Media with Live Feed
I mentioned that Omaha Police are handling this a little differently. After hearing from us and meeting with area news directors, OPD arranged for Omaha-based media outlets to retain a live feed through an agreement that commits the organizations to not sharing scanner information prior to the 15-minute delay unless it involves a pressing situation in the public interest, such as an accident or an immediate public safety threat. We’ll be watching closely to see how that goes.
As far as we know, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office is simply cutting off access to a live feed for everyone. Sheriff Hanson hasn’t responded to our outreach.
There’s no legal requirement for agencies to provide real-time access, so this is a “should they,” not “could they” situation. We encourage concerned community members to get in touch with these agencies and share their thoughts.
When it comes to policing, it’s important to be vocal about any steps away from transparency. Since Lincoln Police made this change, we’ve seen scanner delay times grow — albeit while media outlets retain live access. Not far away in Chicago and Denver, police have made the switch to delayed feeds without any live access for media, effectively barring the public from having any real-time information that’s not filtered through police. For at least 30 minutes in a volatile situation, residents are effectively being told to just take officers’ word for whatever happened.
As my Illinois counterpart Ed Yonka told the Chicago Tribune, radio traffic is an important vehicle for understanding what police are doing and where issues exist across our neighborhoods. That’s important for community safety and accountability. There’s also a racial justice element to all of this because we know police are more likely to stop, search and arrest people of color than white people. And in terms of a civil rights connection, we’ve litigated several recent cases related to excessive force, including two that came out of the George Floyd protests. More transparency means better odds of policing that respects our rights.
We’ve told both agencies we’re here if they're willing to discuss better solutions for their communities. We’ll keep advocating for transparency and accountability. We appreciate our supporters doing the same.