The Minnesota chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (MNSPJ) is troubled by a recent decision to encrypt law enforcement emergency dispatches and other radio traffic by the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office and agencies that use the county’s service.
MNSPJ urges Hennepin County Sheriff David Hutchinson to drop this new practice, or let journalists continue using this information, which helps news organizations inform readers and viewers about public safety incidents while ensuring accountability and transparency from the police and fire departments that respond.
For decades, journalists have used scanners to monitor radio transmissions from public safety agencies, and respond in real time to breaking news. These radio transmissions are typically a starting point for journalists, who go on to investigate and evaluate whether the incident rises to the level of general public interest. Reporters know to contact the agencies for more information. They can get to the scene to talk with witnesses. The information helps journalists assess how quickly they must react and with what degree of resources.
All this improves the quality of reporting at the time of an incident, so community members can understand if there’s a broader threat. Later, it helps ensure that final news reports provide detailed information on a timely basis about the substance of incident — whether it’s a crime, a fire or an accident — and the response by public safety agencies. Particularly with incidents that involve a police response, this transparency helps hold authorities accountable if something should go wrong — an essential part of building trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve. It also can help readers and viewers better understand the actions of law enforcement.
In September, radio transmissions in the shooting death of Ronald Davis in St. Paul provided important context, as journalists listening to scanner traffic heard a police officer yell: “Drop the knife! Drop the knife!” The detail helped readers and viewers understand the story, and also helped journalists evaluate accusations from activists that Davis had been shot down by police in the street in cold blood.
In September 2018, when a teen stole an SUV and raced down Cedar Ave. in Minneapolis at high speeds before crashing and killing three people, journalists listening to police radio could quickly address a key question via scanner traffic: “Our guys were not in pursuit; they were not in pursuit,” a member of the State Patrol said immediately after the incident. The accident came a few months after the State Patrol faced criticism for pursuing at high-speeds a vehicle that crashed into a playground and hit three children.
These are just two examples of why MNSPJ is asking Sheriff Hutchinson to consider alternatives. When a similar change was made in Lincoln, Neb., police decided to publish an unedited online feed that was delayed by 10 minutes. A spokesman for the sheriff has suggested that news organizations might be able to use devices to decode scanner traffic. We’re encouraged by this, but hope the sheriff will simply revert to the old practice.
Public safety personnel already use alternate, confidential communication channels when needed for tactical reasons. Other public safety agencies aren’t following Hennepin County’s lead. As a spokesman for the Minneapolis Police Department told a Star Tribune editorial writer: “We have no intention of going to encryption. … We haven’t seen the need.”