For Hennepin County’s new sheriff: A quick pivot to encryption

By Mike Kaszuba

Two months after Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson took office in early 2019, a sheriff’s office advisory board set a key date:  The sheriff’s office would tentatively begin encrypting radio traffic on April 10 for all police departments using the county’s dispatch service.

The move was noteworthy because Hutchinson, during his campaign for sheriff in 2018, had opposed encrypting police radio traffic – and there were no indications the new sheriff had changed his mind and was instead moving to block the public and news media from hearing local police radio calls in much of Minnesota’s most populous county.

But documents obtained by Public Record Media (PRM), a non-profit based in Saint Paul, show that the move to stop the public from hearing police radio calls was already in its final planning stages as Hutchinson took office.  And although the start date for encrypting calls would be postponed until October 2019, the documents show that the advisory board had for two years targeted 2019 as the date for the changeover to encryption.

In addition, a January 2020 sheriff’s office summary of its encryption decisions indicated that it might not stop with encryption – and that further steps might be taken to “assist with call/data sharing.”  One possibility, the summary stated, outlined how it might be “possible for our data to go out in a reasonably delayed manner and also withhold specific call types (Criminal Sexual Conduct, Mental Health, Domestic Related etc.).  This platform would also allow us to withhold the specific address.”

Documents reveal long push for encryption

The documents show that there had been a steady push in Hennepin County for encryption – in which information sent over a police radio is converted to a code that hides its meaning. Records show that in 2015, the sheriff’s office viewed encryption as “critical to security” because of “the amount of information that is getting out [to the public] through the [police] scanners and mobile apps.”  A 2016 estimate placed the cost of encrypting the county’s law enforcement radios at $8.7 million.

And even as far back as 2012, records indicate that the city manager of suburban Plymouth saw encryption as necessary because “the media was broadcasting incident information before administration is even aware of it.”

The documents obtained by PRM do not indicate whether Hutchinson – after becoming sheriff – raised doubts about the move, or sought to pause it for further study.  Similarly, the documents also do not give any indication when – or why – he changed his mind in favor of encryption.

The sheriff’s office annual report for 2019, in listing “Year in Review Highlights” and detailing 14 separate achievements for the year, made no mention of the move to encryption.

With Hutchinson taking office in January of 2019, documents show that the sheriff’s office Public Safety Communications Users Advisory Board was told in March of the same year that “encryption will tentatively be ready on April 10th at 0400 hours.”  Due to technical problems, the date was postponed for six months.  “Cutover date will be middle to late October (2019),” notes from an advisory board meeting on Sept. 4, 2019 stated.

The notes from the same meeting also outlined in part what would happen:  “The clear (unencrypted) channels will also be shut off so that users will get a busy tone (bonk) when attempting to transmit on them.”

Andrew Skoogman, a sheriff’s office spokesman, told PRM that Hutchinson made the change after listening to the advisory board – but said there was no specific date or incident that led to his change of mind.

Hutchinson not in favor of encryption before election

Before being elected, Hutchinson had said he was not in favor of encrypting radio and traffic calls – but told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in October 2019 he was “unaware of the long-range planning” within the sheriff’s office.

“Sheriff Hutchinson listened to the advisory board and their recommendations and decided that they made a strong case for encryption,” Skoogman said.  “The most compelling of these reasons includes protecting the privacy of citizens.

“The sheriff doesn’t believe the general public should have unfiltered information about people’s private situations.  He also doesn’t believe it’s safe to air law enforcement response to emerging situations,” he added.

In a statement to PRM in October of 2020, Skoogman said Hutchinson had not attended any advisory board meetings during his political campaign, or since becoming sheriff.  But he said Hutchinson “was aware that [encryption] was possible during the campaign [for sheriff] but learned much more about it after becoming sheriff.”

The documents, however, do shed light on one other point: While some county officials – notably then-Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat – said they were caught off guard by the move, the advisory board included a high-ranking representative from the county.  According to the documents, Mark Thompson, an assistant county administrator, served as a non-voting member in 2019.

Skoogman cited Thompson’s presence on the board as a reason Hutchinson did not feel the need to independently keep county officials abreast of what was taking place.  “The Assistant County Administrator was part of the board – he reports to county commissioners through the County Administrator,” Skoogman told PRM.

The advisory board, which had eleven voting members, was made up of mostly local law enforcement and suburban city officials – and had been criticized for not including news media representatives, or the public.

But the records indicate that officials from the sheriff’s office believed that there had been public input because local governments in Hennepin County had taken steps to help with the transition.  “Each city had to [get] approval from their individual City Councils to purchase these radios or add the encryption upgrade after the purchase,” a sheriff’s office summary stated.

At a March 2016 meeting, the advisory board also requested that an “informational document” be handed out to “provide clarification and justification [for encryption to suburban] city managers and city council members.”

The move toward encryption was surprising to some critics because Hutchinson had unseated Sheriff Rich Stanek, and had a run as a progressive with a promise to “reinvent” the office.  Hutchinson had promised to undo some of Stanek’s policies that had caused controversy – particularly the former sheriff’s cooperation with the Trump administration on immigration issues.

Others complained that sheriff’s officials, at the time of the change, had produced few examples showing why encryption was needed.

“Where is the evidence?  Where are the gross invasions of privacy,” longtime public data advocate Don Gemberling told the Minneapolis Star Tribune when the change was announced.  (Gemberling had for years helped local governments comply with the Minnesota Data Practices Act, the state law mandating the disclosure of public data, and serves as an advisor to PRM).

“Where are the tactical situations that got screwed up because somebody was using a scanner?” he asked.

Documents include police rationales for encryption

The advisory board documents did provide insight into the thinking of local law enforcement officials, and also included a few examples of why they said encryption was needed.

A fifteen-page sheriff’s office summary obtained by PRM included one incident – a triple homicide – in Brooklyn Park in 2012.  In that incident, the summary stated that “media outlets already had the initial audio out about the specific address within 20 minutes of the initial call going out.”  The summary added that while SWAT teams were searching nearby yards, a resident emerged to say that “we’ve been listening and wondering when you were going to get here.”

Another undated incident cited in the summary occurred in Blue Earth County when police were called to a domestic disturbance that turned into a standoff.  “During the call [with the suspect, police] negotiators were repeatedly attempting to contact [the] subject but were unable to speak to him because the media was calling the male and conversing with him,” the summary stated.

“The reporter continued to further aggravate the subject’s mental state. The call escalated to two officers being shot in the head, with one severely injured,” the summary added.

“It was only after law enforcement was able to contact the reporter’s supervisor that they were able to get the reporter to stop calling the subject,” the summary stated.  “The newspaper later refused to provide information to law enforcement about the content of their conversations.”

In outlining other instances, the summary said that drug task force investigators trying to serve search warrants have had to deal with suspects using police scanners to monitor radio traffic.  And it said that burglars have used police scanners to “time” their burglaries – purposely setting off alarms and then listening for when police will tell dispatchers that they will no longer respond to the repeated alarms.

The summary also included four national incidents.

One occurred at Ft. Hood, Texas in 2014 when police were responding to an unfolding active shooter situation. The summary stated that, as police chased suspects, their movements were being posted in real time on social media sites. “The first ten minutes of the scanner audio,” the summary stated, “was even posted to YouTube14.”

The summary added that “in this age of instant access to information it is essential [to] control the means of mission critical communications and to ensure tactical information is not disseminated for everyone to hear.”

Encryption push started long before Hutchinson

The documents make clear, however, that Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office officials were thinking about encryption long before Hutchinson became sheriff in January 2019.

The move, at least in its early stages, did come with limitations.  In April 2013, sheriff’s office official John Gundersen told the advisory board that “the Sheriff’s Office can encourage but not mandate the use of encryption.”

But Gundersen, a year earlier, had advised the board that encrypted cache radios were available upon request, and that adding encryption to an existing [police] radio costs roughly $900.

Documents provided to PRM indicate that the push for encryption increased as the years passed.

In December of 2015, the advisory board was told “that it was now [the sheriff’s office] goal to work toward encrypting all of the LAW mains.”

As early as 2016, the sheriff’s office and suburban police departments were discussing the cost of encryption.  While encrypting the county’s law enforcement radios would cost $8.7 million, encrypting all remaining radios, including those used by hospitals, airports and school districts, would total $18.5 million, according to the sheriff’s office summary.

“Each city was broken up and was provided information if their current radios were able to be retrofitted or if they would need to purchase new radios,” the summary added.  “These costs were also placed on each individual city.”

By June of 2017, according to the documents, the advisory board was told that “70% of Hennepin County Law Agencies were now encrypted.”  (The 70 percent figure represented only those agencies that the sheriff’s office provided police dispatch services for, and does not include Minneapolis, Bloomington, Edina and the University of Minnesota, among others).

Three months later, in September 2017, the board learned that sheriff’s office officials were eyeing 2019 as the target date for “encrypting all of the Law mains.”

Shortly after Hennepin County began encryption, a sheriff’s office summary provided to PRM discussed other measures that might be taken. “We already record all of our radio audio,” the summary stated.  “We are looking at system upgrades or other programs that would allow us to delay the release of radio audio and also redact sensitive data.”