The Hennepin County Sheriff Office's move to encrypt radio calls is a decision that bears closer scrutiny, for it's part of a larger effort around the country by law enforcement to severely limit the types of information that the public, the news media and even other law enforcement agencies can hear in real time.
As of last Wednesday, 911 calls and radio traffic for the office and the 25 law enforcement agencies that use Hennepin County's dispatch service can no longer be heard without an encrypted scanner. Agencies outside that jurisdiction — which include the State Patrol, Minneapolis police, the Ramsey County Sheriff's Department and several cities within Hennepin County that have their own dispatch centers — are among those blocked out unless an alternate channel is opened up.
In an interview with an editorial writer last week, Hennepin County Sheriff David Hutchinson and officials from a half dozen other law enforcement agencies that participated in the decision laid out their reasoning. Whether it was Brooklyn Park, Orono, Wayzata or Maple Grove, every chief said his department had experienced instances in which listening in on police scanner traffic resulted in incorrect or unnecessarily detailed information being made public. Some said law enforcement operations had been compromised and officer safety jeopardized.
Hutchinson, who as a candidate opposed encryption, now says that he was "unaware of the long-range planning" at the time and that as he learned more he became a proponent. An editorial writer was shown screenshots of Facebook pages that relayed scanner traffic in real time, sometimes with specific addresses, detailed information and even speculation about the identities of victims and suspects. Others redacted the last two digits of an address.
Earlier this year, one such page posted scanner information about a 4-year-old criminal sexual assault victim, including speculation that the father was the suspect. He was not. Police chiefs said mental health calls have popped up with addresses. Criminals or suspects are among those who can and have used sophisticated scanner apps to monitor unencrypted police communications from cellphones. Former hobbyists now can use social media to relay that information themselves.
It's clear Hutchinson and the other agency officials have legitimate concerns about how social media has transformed the landscape and, at times, overtaken judgment. The risks are real.
However — and it's a big "however" — it's disconcerting that in the seven years of planning for this transition, these entities did so little to get input from the public, news organizations and even their own partners in law enforcement. Minneapolis police appeared blindsided by the move. John Elder, a spokesman for the Minneapolis Police Department, told an editorial writer that "we found out the day before encryption started, much to our chagrin."
Interestingly, given the degree of concern shown by Hutchinson and others, Elder said that Minneapolis will not be making a similar move: "We have no intention of going to encryption," he said. "We haven't seen the need." Elder did say the county's encryption has complicated work for Minneapolis police, who work closely with Hennepin sheriffs, particularly downtown.
"As of [last] Wednesday, when our officers have something Hennepin needs to know about, instead of just getting on the radio, they call it on to the [Hennepin] dispatch center," Elder said. "Before, we all had each others' radio channels." Even county commissioners expressed surprise. Commissioner Mike Opat told an editorial writer: "It came up quite quickly. I can't say we were given much warning or had a chance to be briefed on it much at all." The sheriff's office has a high degree of autonomy, he said, but "I think this should have been done better, with more advance notice for everyone."
Adam Scott Wandt, an expert on technology in law enforcement at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told an editorial writer that there has been a surge of police departments across the country encrypting their main communications frequencies.
"There have been real problems with misuse [of unencrypted channels], including by criminals," he said. But, he added, "there are some real negatives, and a major one is lack of transparency." A former peace officer and EMS chief, Wandt said that "in my opinion, the best practice, without a doubt, would be to provide encryption codes and radios to bona fide members of the media. Locking out the media altogether causes a situation that's ripe for fraud and abuse of power."
Hutchinson and the assembled chiefs said last week that they want to work with the media and are looking at options. At a time when trust in law enforcement demands more transparency, not less, the sheriff and his advisory board should ensure that the new system is workable for all.