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By Diana Diamond

Palo Alto City Council: Get rid of police encryption! Now! Please!

Uploaded: Feb 22, 2022

How long will it take the Palo Alto City Council to discuss the police encryption problem? When will the city’s top staff members stop saying that encryption must remain, and that nothing can be done because the city must protect the privacy of individuals stopped by police? Why are they telling the council that it’s impossible to change the new encryption rules? What about Police Chief Robert Jonsen’s encryption rule, now in effect for 14 months, that has taken away the public’s ability to listen to police activity on radio transmitters in real time? And when will the public care enough to really urge the council to nullify these rules because this information about police department activities is public information.

Encryption, as you may know, has been in place in Palo Alto since Jan. 1, 2021, after the state Department of Justice came out with a memo suggesting police should avoid having private information (such as date of birth, driver’s license number, address) made public on police radio transmissions. The DOJ said encryption was one way to accomplish that, unless the department found other ways to keep only the private information off the broadcasts

.Jonsen, on his own and without any city council knowledge or discussion, decided to stop all police radio transmissions between police dispatchers and officers – period. These radio transmissions have been the practice for years. They routinely include information on storms, floods, accidents, robberies, etc. that happen in town.

For months since the encryption was imposed, three city officials have strongly defended this new practice. City Manager Ed Shikada, Chief Jonsen and City Attorney Mollie Stump have become a team, in a way, to insist this city must use encryption so that private information of individuals stopped by police is no longer broadcast.

Nor will anything other activity by police officers be aired – for a long, long time, if Joonsen has his way.

Transmissions had personal details, such as date of birth, address, license plate numbers. Rather than finding a way to transmit that information (perhaps by a phone call to the dispatcher), Jonsen and Stump instead say all incidents must be kept quiet.

The most recent example of insistence came at a City Council’s Policy and Services recent subcommittee meeting. Council member Greer Stone asked that encryption be placed on the full council agenda., so that the council can take steps to decrypt police radio transmitters, as the California Highway Patrol has done (with no objections from the DOJ).

As the Daily Post reported, Stump jumped in objecting, as she pushed back on Stone’s request, saying the city is under a legal obligation to protect personal information, and the police department has not found a good alternative to encryption. “Maybe we don’t want to be focusing so much on decryption,” she said, adding that maybe the police could look at other methods for communicating with the public.

Stump’s comments immediately told me that for the last 14 months, these three city officials were keen on keeping encryption and blocking transmissions, so the public would not learn about what’s going on in town that involved the police. The department wants to halt all transmissions, so it can keep police activities quiet and then decide which incidents the department wants to let the public know about. In simpler words, the less the public knows, the more convenient it is for the department.

I remember two occasions when Jonsen appeared before the council saying he has searched and searched for an alternative to encryption, but cannot find one. Hmm. Did he check with the CHP?

I don’t believe Stump’s sudden concern for privacy. Funny, neither do I remember her talking about a legal obligation to protect personal information. Yet now, with encryption the new rule, she adamantly wants to defend privacy of individuals stopped by police. That’s a lot of inconsistent blarney.

Jonsen did come out recently with a new “calls for service” program, whereby maps are released with circles indicating incidents where the police were involved. But the circles included no address or street names, nor did they indicate what happened at that site – the most important part. Was it a burglary or a holdup or an accident or a major traffic problem? No such information on the map.

Furthermore, the circles are not posted until the event is over. The police and witnesses have left the scene, so all the public really know is that “something” happened in the area.

The public and the press need to know a lot more. The police should not keep it hidden from us. When we had radio transmissions, the press and interested residents knew immediately. And immediately is not hours later.

At that committee meeting, Stump nudged Council member Allison Cormack to have a study session on this, rather than putting encryption on the council agenda. Cormack took the bait, so it looks like a study session will be in order.

This should be a real agenda item, so council members can make motions and take actions, which doesn’t happen at study sessions. As Stone said, and I totally agree, the study session should not be a venue for the police to defend their current policy of no encryption.

I think Jonsen wants and likes the idea of keeping police department activities as opaque as possible. And that’s just plain wrong, in my estimation.

When I talked to former mayor Tom DuBois late last year, he said he would try to get encryption on the agenda, but then his term was over. I’ve talked to two other council members who told me they support getting rid of encryption.

So why the holdup?

Are Jonsen, Shikada and Stump running this town – or is it the council? If it’s the council, then please agendize this item ASAP. You’ve been twiddling your thumbs too long on this issue.

And thank you, Greer, for pursuing this topic!