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Hennepin Sheriff responds to fallout over encrypted radio system

The switch was a surprise to most people.

This past week, the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office made a major change — and the public wasn't quite ready for it.

On Wednesday, they switched to an encrypted radio system, blocking ordinary citizens from monitoring the department's dispatches on police scanners.

Though described by the sheriff's office as an effort to protect 911 caller privacy as well as sensitive police movements, the decision quickly proved a controversial one. 

A number of "crime reporting" social media groups launched a petition urging Sheriff Dave Hutchinson to reverse course, saying he was failing to live up to his promises of increased transparency. 

And, as public data journalist Tony Webster told MPR in an interview on Friday, "the conversation with the public (regarding the switch to encrypted radio) really did not happen."

The station also noted the move impacted "25 other police departments that use 911 Dispatch from Hennepin County," making the change a far-reaching one.

On Friday, the department addressed the community's criticisms with a press release, owning up to the fact that citizens had little say in the matter:

While each city in the dispatch system brought requests to update their equipment to their respective city councils over the last four years, we recognize that we did not clearly communicate this change to the public before the new system went live.

Addressing the use of scanner apps that allow people to follow police reports, the sheriff's office acknowledges that while "most users have no malicious intentions... there is no federal law that requires public access to police radio..."

Additionally, the release says, "live broadcast offers law enforcement agencies no ability to redact sensitive information." 

Despite this, the department says the public will still be able to request recordings of 911 calls with any sensitive data taken out, and that it's "working on a solution to provide needed access to police communications.

"We welcome the public’s comment on this issue."

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