Encryption locks out public, press from Hennepin Sheriff radio chatter

Hennepin County Sheriff candidate Dave Hutchinson, right.
Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson, campaigns while seeking the office of Sheriff in 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

This week, Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson began encrypting all police radio communications. Police say it will increase officer safety and victim privacy, but the change could come at the cost of government transparency.

The encryption prevents the public or journalists from hearing police communications for not only Hennepin County police, but 25 other police departments that use 911 Dispatch from Hennepin County.

MPR News host Cathy Wurzer talked with public data freelance journalist Tony Webster about the changes.

Cathy Wurzer: I recall when Sheriff Hutchinson was running for election, he said he would not encrypt the radio and traffic calls. What do you think happened?

Tony Webster: He did say that. And that obviously changed. On Wednesday, without the public widely knowing, the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office flipped that switch and made all their radio communications encrypted.

There are two sides to this story, and both sides feel quite strongly. On one hand, law enforcement views this as being critical to officer safety, not wanting suspects to know police movements, protecting the privacy of victims and witnesses.

Your support makes a difference.

MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.

There hasn’t been a lot of evidence provided that this being a routine threat to officers. It’s important to note that for over a decade, sensitive operations like SWAT and raids have already been encrypted. There have been cases of suspects listening in, which is already illegal to do in the commission of a crime.

But the privacy aspect is a bit compelling. Anyone listening to a police scanner will hear victim and children’s names, drivers license numbers and so on.

It’s a really tough issue to balance that’s definitely worthy of conversation. And I think what’s making tensions higher right now, the conversation with the public really did not happen. This change was made with very little warning.

Wurzer: Does the law require 911 dispatch and scanner communications to be publicly accessible?

Webster: That’s a tough question, and gets to the question of “what is government data” under the law, and whether they have to record that in the first place. Generally speaking, law enforcement does record that audio, but that’s not always the case. If they do record it, it is public, but if you can’t listen live, then you have to make a request for it.

Then the question is, would they consider it public as response data? Or would they call it investigative data, which they might withhold until the end of a trial?

Wurzer: From your standpoint, is it a problem if journalists and the public know less and less about the doings of law enforcement?

Webster: That’s the other side to this. When police radio systems go dark like this, it cuts off access to the journalist and the public. Reporters are watchdogs, they’re reporting on crime in the community and holding police accountable.

The reporting that you’re used to could fundamentally change because the press won’t even know to be there, unless someone sends out a tip or police send out a press release.

It’s important to note this is about police radio dispatch, so your call to 911 to get help, that’s already protected under state law, and that audio is not available.

Wurzer: With the legislative session coming up, do you think this will come before the Legislature?

I think it could. In Colorado, there was an attempt to put forward a bill that would make the practice of encrypting the usual radio calls — not tactical, but just routine dispatch calls — to make that so it couldn’t be encrypted. That bill failed in Colorado. Maybe we’ll see something like that.

There’s also the issue that when these calls are recorded, could those be withheld. There’s some vagueness in state law right now, so it’s possible we could see something like that come up.

Listen to the full discussion with the audio player above.