Like many other police departments, EPD has switched from its existing analog UHF system to the STARCOM21 digital system, which uses different frequencies. Submitted photo

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With no notice, the Evanston Police Department has moved to a new radio system – one that allows the department to communicate with other police agencies, but essentially shuts out the public from listening in to those conversations.

The Department has switched from its existing analog UHF system to the STARCOM21 digital system, which uses different frequencies.

STARCOM21 is a public/private partnership between the State and Motorola Solutions that enables interoperable communications among State, local and federal government users. The system is coordinated by the State Department of Innovation & Technology and the Illinois State Police.  Non-State entities must work with Motorola Solutions directly to apply for network access.  

Evanston followed a number of neighboring communities in making the switch, the record shows. A Federal Communications Commission (FCC) directive, dating to 2012, called for public safety entities to remove their safety networks from the UHF frequencies they now use by 2021 so those channels could be auctioned off for commercial purposes.

The directive was supposed to go into effect in 2021, but it could be several years beyond that when the agencies would have to make the move.

In addition, there is an effort in Congress to repeal the legislation.

In spite of the possible delay, City staff recommended last year that the Department move from their existing UHF T-band analog system to the STARCOM system, which was described as a “much more robust, feature-rich system,” according to the minutes from the July 25, 2019, meeting of the City’s Emergency 9-1-1 Committee meeting.

“The current police radio system was last updated in 2006,” staff said in their report at the meeting, “and much of its infrastructure (base stations and portable radios) have reached end-of-life and is in need of refreshing, which would cost thousands of dollars.” 

Police Chief Demitrous Cook initiated discussion with City staff on the move as part of the budget this year.

The changeover is listed by police as one of the department’s accomplishments in the 2021 budget.

Asked recently about the switch, Chief Cook said the new system will allow the Department to talk to other neighboring communities that have moved to the STARCOM system. 

These include Skokie, Wilmette, Lincolnwood, Winnetka, Morton Grove, Kenilworth, Niles, Glencoe, Northbrook, and Glenview, City staff reported at the 9-1-1 Committee meeting last year.

Many of those communities had no choice but to find a new system, responding to a State mandate requiring communities with a population of less than 25,000 to consolidate systems. 

Another advantage, Chief Cook pointed out, is that “we can be downstate in southern Illinois and talk to our dispatchers,” using the new system.

Asked about citizens who no longer have access to the system, Chief Cook referred to the FCC directive, maintaining the change was “happening not only here but all over America.”

He acknowledged the barrier to access for citizens was unfortunate, but suggested that if citizens are seeking to change that, “they have to take it up with the State.

Addressing the City Council at the Nov. 25, 2019, City Council meeting, Evanston resident Max Overholt urged aldermen to not approve the changeover.

“While I understand there is a need to upgrade much of the equipment,” he said, “my main worry is in regards to encryption in regards to radio communications. While there are legitimate issues with websites and phone apps that stream police radio communications,” Mr. Overholt said, “I see little if any need for the main dispatch channel with this new radio system to go encrypted. Special operations stuff such as those related to SWAT, surveillance or narcotics should be,” he said, “but regular day-to-day dispatch traffic should not.”

City Could Have “Stayed in the Clear”

Dave Weaver, a freelance network news cameraman and owner/operator of Radioman911.com which provides live fire/emergency radio communications and information to news assignment desks and others from communities throughout the greater Chicagoland region, maintained that Evanston, in switching over to STARCOM, had a choice between going encrypted or “staying in the clear” – allowing citizens to continue listening in on live conversations – and went with an encrypted system.

If Evanston had chosen to switch to STARCOM and remain open in its communications, he said, “somebody with an older scanner might be out of luck but someone with a new scanner would still be able to monitor.”

Some law enforcement officials have expressed concerns in unpublished reports about criminals listening in to live radio communications to further their illicit activities.

Mr. Weaver said the issue has not come up in communications around incidents he has monitored.

“What it boils down to is those police chiefs just don’t want nosy people listening to what they’re doing, because nothing positive comes out of it – whether it brings more civilian oversight or a news crew or whatever,” he said. 

On the other hand, he pointed out, civilians listening in to live radio communications can call in information – as he did in his neighborhood one time, helping police nab a rape suspect who fit the radio description.

With more public safety departments moving toward the STARCOM system, he argued that there should be legislation at the State level that would either require communities to provide live radio communications or provide a feed which would allow access on a delayed basis, in certain cases.

Even then, only “a small delay if they need it,” he emphasized.