Police scanners in Scott County are set to go silent under a radio replacement plan currently being rolled out countywide.
Local law enforcement dispatch communications will be aired over an encrypted channel once the new radios are in use, local officials confirmed.
The switch to encryption, expected to take place in spring 2021, means the general public will no longer be able to hear police incidents unfold through handheld scanners, scanner applications and websites such as Broadcastify.
Scott County Sheriff Luke Hennen said the change is being made in the interest of public safety and victim privacy.
"Calls we go to — and people's struggles — don't need to be broadcast," Hennen said.
Scott County Sheriff's Office Capt. Scott Haas said listening to police radio traffic is increasingly popular, and changes in technology have made it easy for anyone — including individuals engaged in criminal activity — to tune in.
"We have an obligation to protect people having a bad day, and to protect people's private information," Haas said.
Law enforcement agencies in Dakota County have also been purchasing radios with encryption capabilities in recent years, but officials said they don't have a plan for how or if they'll use the encryption feature.
"There's arguments on both sides," said Dakota County Sheriff's Office Deputy Chief Joe Leko. "Officer safety and transparency."
Mark Anfinson, a Minnesota attorney specializing in information law and data practices, said both sides represent a strong, legitimate public policy issue. Anfinson represents the Minnesota Newspaper Association, which includes this newspaper.
"You don’t want law enforcement operating in the dark anymore than you have to," he said. "And to some degree, secrecy of law enforcement is totally legitimate."
But to think encryption always falls on the side of protecting victims of crime ignores the value of public accountability, Afinson continued.
“That’s what public accountability is all about — helping the victims," he said.
Critics of encryption, which include many news organizations throughout the country, say the change weakens transparency and ends a longstanding, essential news-gathering practice of responding to an incident, such as a crash or shooting.
Last year, the Minnesota Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists called on Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson to reverse a decision to encrypt the police communications from all departments using the county's dispatch services.
"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," Chris Snowbeck, the journalist organization's president, wrote last year. "It also can help readers and viewers better understand the actions of law enforcement."
Under the current radio system, not all 911 communications are publicly available. State law protects the public from hearing 911 callers, and Scott County's current equipment keeps tactical operations off the air.
Officers involved with SWAT or drug task for operations already use encrypted radios, for example, but moving routine police calls to an encrypted channel is an "all or nothing" decision, Hennen said.
In recent years, each police department in Scott County has been replacing old radio equipment with equipment that offers encryption capability, but the switch to an encrypted channel won't occur until every officer is ready.
Hennen said that's expected to happen sometime next year.
After the switch, fire department calls throughout the county will remain accessible to the public on an open channel.
Hennen and Haas both said continuing to offer access to fire department communications provides a point of balance to residents wanting information about major public safety incidents.
"The fire channel captures that, yet it doesn't downplay our safety," Hennen said.
Burnsville Police Capt. Don Stenger said Burnsville officers all have encryption technology on their radios these days, but the department doesn't yet use it.
Tom Folie, executive director of the Dakota County Communications Center where the county's emergency calls are dispatched, said he thinks encryption is desired in the long-term, but it's probably two to three years away.