(TNS) — South Bend and St. Joseph County officials Tuesday were still trying to piece together what happened Monday night when police lost use of their radios for about nine minutes, leaving them unable to communicate with each other or the area’s emergency 911 center.
At roughly the same time, the South Bend Common Council suspended its virtual meeting because people who wanted to speak at a public hearing before the council voted on a bill to create a community police complaint review board had been unable to log in.
The meeting problems may have resulted from a global Microsoft 365 outage that the company has said does not seem to have been caused by hackers. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Tuesday released a statement saying, “at this point we have no indication of a broader coordinated campaign.”
The city clerk’s office has been using Microsoft Teams to conduct council meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
City and county officials early Tuesday had been working under the assumption that the police radio outage was linked to the Microsoft issue, but that wasn’t the case, said Ray Schultz, executive director of the St. Joseph County 911 Center. He said the center’s systems don’t use Microsoft products.
Rather, Schultz said, the radio troubles likely were somehow caused by a planned equipment upgrade the Indiana 911 network performed at 9:08 p.m. Schultz said he usually receives email advisories from the state about such routine upgrades, sometimes only a couple hours in advance, but his county Microsoft 360 email was down late Monday so he couldn’t advise police.
During the upgrade, the county center switched to a local-only network, which meant officers should still have been able to speak with each other and the center, he said. Schultz said the center will diagnose the officers’ radios to determine what went wrong.
There also was some confusion as to whether the 911 center had shut down. Multiple national news outlets reported that 911 centers across the country suffered brief outages timed with the Microsoft problems. But the county’s center never had trouble.
Shortly after 9 p.m. Monday, about two hours into the council meeting as members were discussing whether to table the police review board bill or end the meeting altogether because of the technological problems, council attorney Bob Palmer said he had just received an email “with an indication that 911 call centers have been hacked and maybe shut down nationwide.”
Earlier in the meeting, during the portion where people who were opposed to the review board could speak, several had been unable to log in or speak. Palmer, not yet aware of the Microsoft outage, said, “We have apparently been hacked in this meeting. There’s something obviously very suspicious about only the opposition to this bill not being able to get into this.”
After the meeting, Palmer told The Tribune that Police Chief Scott Ruszkowski had said during the meeting that the local 911 center went down. But on Tuesday he said he had misspoken. He said Ruszkowski had posted in the virtual meeting’s chat function, “Our radio system just went down, and I was just advised that 911 centers around the country are being/have been hacked.”
On Tuesday Palmer apologized.
“That was my quick interpretation of his message,” Palmer said of conflating the two things. “We were a little busy trying to fix the problems.”
The council planned to reschedule the meeting for Monday.
Enough input and debate?
There already had been some debate during the meeting over whether the council should take a final vote on the bill, which its sponsors have been working on through many iterations since March. Council members Lori Hamann, Karen White and Henry Davis Jr. introduced the bill March 18, 11 days after a special prosecutor cleared former South Bend officer Sgt. Ryan O’Neill of wrongdoing in fatally shooting Eric Logan in June 2019.
“I’ve never seen a bill take this long to get passed,” Davis said. “We have talked to literally everybody.”
Sponsors said they had gathered enough public input, and any problems with the bill could be worked out later. But some council members, such as Rachel Tomas-Morgan, Troy Warner and Jake Teshka, said the latest version of the bill, filed with the clerk at 1 p.m. Monday, had yet to be vetted publicly despite including big changes, such as housing the full-time review office director within the clerk’s office rather than under the mayor as initially planned. The move was made following objections from Black Lives Matter South Bend, who feels the office needs to be politically independent from the mayor.
Whether the bill would receive a final vote Monday night had remained uncertain throughout the day. Mueller, who has supported the concept of a citizen board, had sent the council a letter at the end of the day Friday asking the sponsors to again continue the bill because it still stated the council could lend its statutory subpoena power to the citizen board. His administration attorneys believe it’s not clear that state law allows the council to delegate its subpoena power or share with a citizen board any materials that subpoenas yield.
But by Monday afternoon, Mueller said he would sign the bill if it’s approved by the council, despite believing it likely will face legal challenges from officers if the review board uses subpoenas.
©2020 the South Bend Tribune, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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