For the second time in a month, new Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson, who campaigned on a promise of a transparent administration if elected, has leveled a blow to public access to information and transparency.
On Wednesday the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) converted their law enforcement dispatch radio traffic to an encrypted system. What has up until now been freely accessible, real-time public safety information available to anyone with a police scanner has now been silenced.
The encryption affects law enforcement radio transmissions for at least twenty-five departments including the cities of Golden Valley, Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park, Robbinsdale, Mound, Minnetrista, Orono, Plymouth, Maple Grove, Minnetonka, Wayzata and New Hope.
The change has government transparency watchdogs, public safety advocates and crime reporting social media groups up in arms. Don Gemberling, spokesman for the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI), expressed concern in a Star Tribune report this week that the encryption technology may be a way for government to gather and conceal information saying, “[a]s we use more and more technology to do law enforcement, we know less and less about what law enforcement is doing.”
Gemberling also dismantled the argument made by the sheriff’s office that the unencrypted transmissions could be used by criminals saying there is no evidence that that has happened locally. He also noted that law enforcement wasn’t concerned about who listened to scanner traffic until the technology became available [to block it] and Hennepin County got “a new sheriff.” HCSO spokesperson Jeremy Zoss even confirmed in the report that they couldn’t offer any “real world examples” from Minnesota of problems traced to radio traffic and 911 calls.
Over a dozen public safety advocacy and police scanner incident social media groups have also united their voices within a petition calling for the reversal of the encrypted system. Among the reasons listed by the groups is, according to them, the already less-than-transparent law enforcement departments that “under-report” criminal activity to the public and a lack of media coverage for many incidents that have proven through the groups’ reporting and follower counts to be of interest to the public. In addition to signing the petition, the groups are asking their follower bases, numbering upwards of 250,000 they say, to contact the HCSO directly and ask that they restore the dispatch transmissions to an unencrypted system and reestablish public access and transparency.
Less than a month ago Hutchinson abruptly launched a new jail roster website that eliminated access to information that had previously been freely available on the roster under the previous sheriff. The information eliminated included the last known address of arrested parties, which is deemed public information by state statute, as well as birthdates of arrested parties, which are necessary for public safety advocates and media outlets doing criminal history searches and for confirming correct identification of suspects or convicted parties.
In response to those changes in the jail roster last month, Crime Watch Minneapolis, one of the groups supporting the new petition to reverse encryption, launched a public call to action for the restoration of the address and birthdate data to the jail roster and posted the request on Facebook. Ten days later the group announced that the sheriff had placed a notice on the jail roster website saying that the address information was being restored. The birthdate information was not restored to the jail roster, however. The reason Hutchinson’s office gave in the recent Star Tribune report for not restoring the birthdate information was over concerns about inmates being susceptible to identity theft.
Pat Doyle, a retired Star Tribune reporter who is also on the board of MNCOGI, called Hutchinson’s actions “goofy and unnecessary” in the Star Tribune report, and said it just makes it that much harder for the average person to get information.
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Minnesota Crime Watch & Information offers citizen-powered news, info and commentary about crime, public safety and livability issues in Minneapolis, the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota.