Federal coronavirus relief dollars will supply encrypted radios to the Scott County Sheriff's Office and Savage Police Department under spending plans approved by city and county officials last month.

Shakopee City Administrator Bill Reynolds said spending relief dollars on encryption does not fall under the CARES Act requirements from the city's standpoint. 

Several county and city officials say communicating certain COVID-19 health data required the purchase of radios with encryption technology, but did not provide support for these claims.

Countywide plans to encrypt all law enforcement dispatch communications have been underway for several years. Now, the CARES Act funds, intended to provide relief for expenses directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic, are being used to cover some of the remaining costs associated with taking scanner dispatches off the air.

Scott County Sheriff Luke Hennen maintains the encrypted radios are considered “public safety expenditures incurred in response to COVID-19," and therefore an authorized expense under the CARES Act.

On Sept. 1, the Scott County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved spending $225,000 from the county's share of relief aid on encrypted radios for the Scott County Sheriff's Office. On Sept. 21, the Savage City Council also unanimously approved the use of CARES Act funds on encrypted radios for the Savage Police Department.

The agenda memo requesting the county board's vote said, “The Department of Health has classified that COVID-19 health data may only be transmitted over encrypted radios in order to be in compliance with Governor Walz executive order 20-34. This prevents the 911 Communications Center from notifying officers before they enter a location with confirmed COVID-19."

However, local law enforcement officials later confirmed COVID-19 heath data doesn't need to be transmitted over encrypted radios. Officers are currently able to access COVID-19 health data while maintaining compliance with privacy requirements.

In an email to the Savage Pacer, Hennen said using other private methods of communication, such as telephone or computer messaging, are cumbersome, inefficient and may be unsafe while driving to emergencies.

“The Governor’s Executive Order and subsequent direction from the Minnesota Department of Health references to encrypted radios provided a nexus to apply the Federal CARES funding to this project,” Hennen wrote.

Southwest News Media could not verify the presence of any references to encrypted radios in the executive order or subsequent guidance.

Local law enforcement officials have previously said the decision to encrypt police radio traffic had been made in the interest of safety and victim privacy. Once the change occurs, the public will no longer be able to listen to scanner dispatches.

Officials claim state mandate

In April, Gov. Tim Walz ordered the Minnesota Department of Health to share data with law enforcement personnel regarding COVID-19 test results.

The order enabled officers to take precautions when responding to an address where COVID-19 might be present by permitting the health department to share addresses associated with COVID-19 cases with law enforcement.

"Shared data must not include identifying information beyond the address," the order states.

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety later published guidance on how law enforcement should handle the private data.

According to the guidance, obtained by the newspaper via the Scott County Sheriff's Office, dispatchers can send the COVID-19 alert over the officer's in-squad laptop, by phone or via radio only when the previously listed methods aren't available.

Both the executive order and further guidance acknowledge that non-encrypted radios might be used, as the guidance states, "Any radio communication that could be monitored by the public or uninvolved parties shall be done using coded language or other similar methods to prevent the public or uninvolved parties from receiving the shared data.”

Local law enforcement officers are presently able to access COVID-19 health data from dispatchers without encrypted radios via in-squad computers, Scott County Sheriff’s Office's Director of Emergency Management and Communication Scott Haas confirmed.

Dispatchers are able to verbally notify officers when they’ve sent additional information related to the address officers are responding to. With the health department data, the officer would click on the notification and be shown a brief, standardized COVID-19 alert message.

The executive order requires the data be transmitted only to the minimum number of people necessary to accomplish the order's purpose. Because there is no mention of using encrypted radios, it’s unclear if communicating the address alert to all officers within the county over the encrypted radio system would comply, despite Savage and Scott County's claims that it does. 

The Savage Police Department and Scott County Sheriff's Office each previously requested Capital Improvement Plan dollars to cover the equipment costs associated with their encryption plan. 

The Capital Improvement Plan provides long-range plans for improvement projects and equipment purchases in order to spread expenses out over time and avoid large budget and tax fluctuations.

Withdrawing the radio purchase requests from the county's Capital Improvement Plan will lead to roughly $204,000 in “future cost reduction” in 2021 and 2022, the Sheriff’s Office wrote in a memo to commissioners.

In an email to the newspaper, Hennen highlighted money saved from future years of tax levy funding.

“In my role as an elected official, I take pride in providing public safety with as minimal impact on the taxpayers as possible,” he said. “As the County Sheriff, I have a responsibility to the safety of our police officers and deputies and I strongly support this project.”

Following inquiries from the Savage Pacer, a city spokesperson said Savage officials would be reversing some — but not all — of their plans to use CARES Act funds on encrypted radio purchases.

Spending relief dollars

The City of Shakopee received about $3.1 million in CARES Act funding. Scott County received approximately $17.7 million.

The federal guidelines allow for the recipients to establish grant programs to support businesses and nonprofit organizations.

Scott County gave $5.5 million for business support, $2 million for housing support and $1 million for rural broadband. Shakopee has spent more than half of its relief money on payrolls for health and public safety employees, as well as on personnel roles that have been changed due to the pandemic. The city also designated $139,000 for small business assistance grants. Shakopee officials said they had not spent relief money on their encryption plan. 

"I do not see how radios would fall under the CARES Act," Shakopee City Administrator Bill Reynolds said in an email. "They do not fall under the requirements as I read them."

According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the CARES Act requires that the payments from the Coronavirus Relief Fund only be used to cover expenses that are necessary expenditures related to COVID-19, were not accounted for in the budget most recently approved as of March 27 and were incurred between March 1 and Dec. 30.

In interviews, some Scott County Commissioners said they supported the purchase because it had been planned for a long time anyways, and buying the radios allows law enforcement to utilize the equipment in their response to COVID-19.

Scott County Commissioner Barb Weckmann Brekke said the CARES Act funds allowed them to purchase the “last batch” of radios in hopes of encrypting all communications within three to four months.

Haas, the county's emergency management director, said he isn't exactly sure when the county will be ready to use the encrypted radios — that's because every law enforcement agency in the county must have their equipment ready to go before they all make the switch over.

He said it’s unknown how much the use of CARES Act money will expedite their plans.

When asked about his vote on the radio purchase, Commissioner John Ulrich initially cited the executive order.

“It certainly says information must be encrypted in transit,” he said, referencing executive order language that doesn’t specifically relate to radio communication.

Ulrich later said he supported the purchase because they were planning to buy the equipment anyways, and the Sheriff’s Office wanted to be able to use the radios to transmit COVID-19 related information.

Commissioner Dave Beer said he isn’t aware of exactly how the purchase might check the boxes required to use CARES Act funds, but he’s confident it meets the requirements because of his trust in county staff.

Beer said he supported the purchase because the radios had been on the books for a long time.

He said the money allows the county to “pre-buy” equipment they’d planned to buy anyways, which results in a tax break for residents because the “pre-budgeted” cost of radios is eliminated.

“We absolutely believe we are doing it correctly, doing it appropriately and doing it in a way that gives county citizens a win-win,” he said.

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