Chauvin trial puts focus on gaps in 911 system revealed during George Floyd riots

Liz Navratil
Star Tribune

Minneapolis — Metro-area 911 centers lacked the technology to communicate amid jammed phone lines and crowded radio channels during rioting last year — and that has not changed as officials brace for the first trial in George Floyd’s death.

With a larger solution still far off, state and local leaders are pinning their hopes on a patchwork of smaller fixes they hope will lead to a smoother response if violence erupts this time.

“Clearly, I think it was a missed opportunity,” said Jill Rohret, executive director of the Metropolitan Emergency Services Board, adding that leaders feel new urgency to address the technological gap.

Crews placed concrete barriers and tall fences, some with barbed wire at the top, around the Hennepin County Government Center and the Hennepin County Public Safety Facility in Minneapolis, in preparation for the trial of Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd.

Regional leaders have known for years that a new information-sharing system could help them communicate electronically when other networks aren’t available, making it easier to respond to 911 calls during frantic times.

For now, state and local leaders are taking steps to streamline their response in others ways: Law enforcement established a center where crucial leaders can work, in hopes it will improve communication. National Guard members are testing radios. Minneapolis leaders hope to reduce 911 call volume by giving residents guidance on which types of issues could be handled by other offices.

“I think we can be more planful and in front of this,” City Coordinator Mark Ruff said. Having had months to prepare, they “won’t have the same kind of panicked reaction we did previously.”

An after-action report released by the emergency services board last fall provided one of the most detailed glimpses into the metro region’s 911 responses last summer.

As rioting overtook peaceful protests following Floyd’s death, cell towers flooded with traffic. Some emergency calls from the Twin Cities were automatically sent as far away as Anoka County.

“There was no ability to transfer 911 callers or the incident information being reported … because of radio and telephone system congestion,” according to the report. Centers also lacked a way to quickly transfer information electronically.

The metro area has 25 911 centers. Each has a computer-aided dispatch system, which allows workers to send call information to officers in the field, often by pinging it to computers in their cars.

When a 911 center in the metro area receives a call meant for another jurisdiction, it often has to use a phone or a radio to pass the information along to the appropriate center. A new system, called CAD-to-CAD, would connect dispatch centers, allowing them to quickly send information electronically and dispatch officers faster.

Consultants recommended in early 2018 that the emergency services board bring in such a system. Dispatch operators in the region told the consultants that they thought it would be especially helpful for responding to protests or crises that draw a response from a large number of police agencies.

The consultants predicted it could take about two years to solicit bids and put the technology in place. Before they can start that process, the cities, counties and other entities that run 911 centers would need to draft an agreement outlining what types of information could be shared and how they would fund the project.

At the time, consultants estimated a system would cost between $2.1 million and $5.7 million, plus $200,000 to $600,000 a year for maintenance. Twin Cities officials estimated that last year’s riots caused more than $432 million in damages.

The regional board does not have authority over dispatch operations, but often provides a forum for 911 centers to discuss issues. Board members prioritized other issues after state leaders unveiled a larger plan to connect dispatch centers throughout Minnesota.

“It ended up getting pulled into the state’s strategic plan,” said Minneapolis City Council Member Andrew Johnson, who chaired the emergency services board in 2018. “There is clearly a need for this sort of CAD-to-CAD sharing happening across the state.”

Those statewide efforts are in early stages. Officials need to complete cost and feasibility studies and create agreements that would govern how the centers share information.

“This may prove difficult as every center has different needs. In other words, what may work for Hennepin County may not work for Kittson County,” said Dana Wahlberg, director of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s division of Emergency Communication Networks.

It’s too early to tell when a statewide system could launch, but officials expect any rollout would likely happen in stages.

“It’s important to note that a CAD-to-CAD solution will likely be deployed region-by-region rather than through a flip-of-the-switch statewide deployment,” Wahlberg said.

Dispatch centers in the metro area are reviving efforts to connect their systems faster.

“Obviously, the events of last summer have put a spotlight on it again, and we need this, and so we’re going to move forward regionally and not wait,” Rohret said.

The lack of an information-sharing system wasn’t the only problem identified in the after-action report.

Contingency plans in the 911 centers weren’t designed to handle crises that lasted longer than three days. Meanwhile, call-takers faced a deluge of abuse, further exhausting them during an already stressful time. The report recommended improving support services for 911 workers and reducing their workloads.

Last year, elected officials and some agency leaders told people to contact 911 for issues that could have been handled by other departments, such as 311 or a police tip line. City leaders expect to release more detailed guidance soon.

When the city abandoned the Third Precinct police station, it lost equipment that could have been used to help with extra 911 calls. City spokesman Casper Hill said Hennepin County can be relied on for backup, if needed, but declined to comment on the status of additional backup centers, citing security concerns.

The report also detailed a series of communication gaps.

Some first responders struggled to identify who served as the “incident commander” and was ultimately in charge. People received conflicting information about where they should be watching for crucial communications. Some struggled to access encrypted radio channels, allowing their conversations to be overheard by rioters who stole radios from the Third Precinct.

Throughout the unrest, leaders also lacked a system that would allow them to see in one spot where all of the first responders were located and, therefore, who was closest to the calls that were being reported. St. Paul, for example, could see where its officers were located in real time, but other agencies didn’t always have that same information.

Rohret said the regional board is looking at tools that provide that capability.

In the meantime, regional leaders hope that their preparations now will allow for a better approach surrounding the upcoming trials.

“Traditionally, we’ve done well with preplanned events,” said Rohret. “I hope that things will run more smoothly this time.”