Facing resistance from the Palo Alto Police Department, the Palo Alto City Council reluctantly agreed Monday to keep police radio communications encrypted and inaccessible to the media and the public.
In a lengthy discussion that extended well past midnight, council members repeatedly acknowledged that Police Chief Robert Jonsen’s abrupt decision in January 2021 to encrypt radio communications conflicts with the law. of the public to know what is happening in the community and hinders the ability of the media to cover the latest news. . They also broadly supported a bill proposed by State Senator Josh Becker that would require law enforcement to make radio communications accessible while protecting personally identifiable information.
But by the end of the debate, only Council Member Greer Stone was in favor of returning departmental radio to an unencrypted channel and developing policies to avoid broadcasting personal information, as required by a recent directive from the State Department of Justice. While most of his colleagues shared his sentiment about the decline in transparency in the department, they opted to keep the policy in place for fear that the switch to unencrypted radio would make it harder for the city to communicate with others. other departments in incidents involving mutual aid.
Instead, council members pinned their hopes for restoring transparency to the police department on an untested tool: an online map that would give near real-time information about police incidents. City Manager Ed Shikada and Jonsen said they would work with police unions to refine the tool, though they cautioned that department officers were concerned that providing the public with a specific location on incidents in real time would cause security issues.
Like most other jurisdictions in Santa Clara County, Palo Alto moved to encryption in response to an October 2020 memo from the state Department of Justice, which ordered all law enforcement agencies to take steps to protect personally identifiable information such as social security numbers and criminal records. .
The memo offered law enforcement two options for compliance: encrypt all radio communications or adopt policies that protect personally identifiable information while keeping all other radio communications unencrypted. Some agencies, including the California Highway Patrol and the cities of East Palo Alto, Palo Alto and Roseville, have complied with the DOJ mandate by adopting new policies. The California Highway Patrol, for example, has a policy of avoiding transmitting an individual’s name in conjunction with other personally identifiable information on its unencrypted radio. If this addition is necessary, a state trooper will transmit it using a computer in his vehicle or by other means.
Palo Alto, like most other cities in Santa Clara County, abruptly moved to full encryption and in doing so deprived the media and other members of the public of the ability to monitor police activity using scanners – a practice that has been essential for covering breaking news for at least 70 years.
Stone argued that Jonsen’s recommendation to retain the encryption policy is “unacceptable.”
“I think it’s absolutely critical that we try to restore that trust in the police, especially given such a breakdown in trust in law enforcement institutions across the country over the past few years. years,” said Council Member Greer Stone. “I think this issue is much more important than ever and really needs transparency.
Stone was one of several council members, along with Mayor Pat Burt and Councilman Tom DuBois, who have expressed reservations over the past year about the city’s switch to encrypted radio. On Monday, however, Burt and DuBois refused to follow Stone’s lead on encryption and instead preferred to explore other technological solutions that would allow the media to stay informed about police activities.
The most promising solution, they argued, is an online map the city unveiled last year that gives basic information about police incidents. Because the map does not describe incidents or only display them after they have happened, it has been called useless for journalists trying to cover news from two newspaper editors who testified before the council on Monday . Additionally, the map only offers approximate locations of where the incidents occur, making it virtually impossible for the media to follow.
Most council members agreed that if the mapping tool was improved so that it provided near real-time information as well as a more exact location, it could be an effective alternative to radio communication.
Local media editors, meanwhile, have pressed the council to restore unencrypted radio communications. Bill Johnson, CEO of Embarcadero Media and publisher of Palo Alto Weekly, and Dave Price, publisher of the Daily Post, both described the critical role listening to the police scanner plays in the information-gathering process.
Johnson said a key benefit of having reporters listening to police radio communications is that it allows them to quell rumors spreading on social media and avoid unnecessary panic. He cited a 2018 incident in which Palo Alto High School was closed because someone called police to report a planned shooting — an incident that was later deemed a hoax. Another high-profile incident occurred in 2019, when a suspected bank robber entered and drove through the Paly campus before being captured by police.
In both cases, parents of students and other residents relied on Palo Alto Online to find out what was going on.
“We are able to provide this after verifying this information and having the benefit of listening to police radio,” Johnson said. “This is an example of a public service being performed not for later use in the paper, but for the immediate purpose of quelling rumours, making sure real-time information gets to people and that you don’t have anxiety, panic where it’s not needed in the community.”
Price highlighted the value that real-time radio communication plays in covering breaking news such as flooding and other severe weather. Reporters monitor the scanner to find out where accidents are happening, then use the information to get the scene and report on conditions. And in major crimes, it’s important that a reporter go to the scene so they can talk to witnesses, which can’t be done if they have to wait for press releases to get the latest news.
Price called the city’s move toward encryption a “First Amendment problem.”
“It’s an example of something that’s been traditionally available to the public since the late 1940s and is now retired,” Price said. “It’s a big concern.”
Both publishers pushed back against arguments Jonsen made in a recent memo suggesting that dropping encryption is technically unfeasible. Price noted that two neighboring jurisdictions that Palo Alto regularly interacts with — Menlo Park and East Palo Alto — both use unencrypted radio communications.
Although Jonsen has repeatedly opposed dropping encryption, he acknowledged on Monday that the department has a few other alternatives. These include moving to the CHP model or following the example of Roseville, which broadcasts all personally identifiable information on an encrypted channel while providing basic information about police activity on the unencrypted channel. However, this would require the city to have a dedicated dispatcher broadcasting on the unencrypted channel.
“We always have an unencrypted channel available to us,” Jonsen said. “The Roseville model is a possibility. We probably have to do an impact analysis on how to do what with the resources we have, but we could do it.”
Interoperability is a major concern for Jonsen and the city council. Palo Alto is a member of the Silicon Valley Regional Interoperability Authority (SVRIA), a regional agency responsible for coordinating communication between law enforcement agencies throughout the county. On March 31, agency executive director Eric Nickel released a memo warning that if Palo Alto were to switch to unencrypted radios, it would create a “demanding situation for dispatchers, field staff, and conformity of contacts”. Specifically, it would require Palo Alto speakers and dispatches to take an extra step of going into encrypted mode before being put into an encrypted “chat group” with other agencies.
Given concerns over interoperability, DuBois said he favors the online option over a return to unencrypted radios.
“I think we need to change the timeline not when it’s over but when it’s underway,” DuBois said. “I think we need to show the precise location.”
Burt was also in favor of an improved streaming service, although he was prepared to delay the news for up to 15 minutes after police expressed reservations about showing real-time news. Deputy Chief Andrew Binder said when the city was implementing the online map, officers expressed concerns that their movements were “more accessible and easier to track” on an online map than on the radio. .
Although Burt acknowledged the inherent tension between the DOJ directive and the First Amendment right to a free press, he ultimately refrained from specifying how much time should be allowed before an event is posted on the map, leaving the issue for the police department to decide. in consultation with his union.
The decision angered Price, who suggested the council’s proposed tool would be useless if information is delayed. Several council members also suggested the city should consider the needs of map users — not just the police union — when developing the tool.
“If it doesn’t meet their needs, then we haven’t met the transparency part and that’s the whole point,” Council member Eric Filseth said.
The board voted 6-1, with Stone dissenting, to keep the encryption.