The Palo Alto Police Department is pushing back against attempts by some members of the City Council to reverse its policy of encrypting police radio communication, which prevents the media and members of the public from using scanners to monitoring police activities.
The policy change was made by City Manager Ed Shikada and Police Chief Robert Jonsen in January 2021 with no council involvement or advance warning. Both had claimed since then that it was adopted to comply with an October 2020 order from the state Department of Justice, which requires law enforcement agencies to protect personal identifiable information such as an individual's Social Security number or passport number. The DOJ memo does, however, allow agencies to adopt policies that protect this information without fully encrypting their communications, as the California Highway Patrol had done.
Since the policy has been implemented, several council members, including Mayor Pat Burt, Tom DuBois and Greer Stone, have criticized it and encouraged the department to consider alternative approaches.
With the council set to discuss police encryption on April 4, the department issued a memo on Thursday making a case for keeping encryption in place and alleging that "there are no other feasible options available at this time to implement 'unencrypted' radio transmissions." The memo argues that because of the dangerous nature of police work, officers' ability to obtain critical information, including personally identifiable information, is "most safely done via the radio."
"Other means of receiving this information can put the officer and the public at risk," the memo claims.
The memo notes that while other means to communicate exist, including in-car computers and cellphones, these methods "do not always provide a safe opportunity to be used in police work."
"In circumstances where an officer is required to manipulate a device not attached to their body or go inside their police vehicle to use the computer, it can take the officer's attention away from a subject and also require the dispatcher to have to answer another phone call (increasing the call volume into the communications center)," the memo states. "Both issues are mitigated by the use of a radio and significantly reduce the officer safety concerns associated with using a phone or in-car computer."
The memo also argues that police radio transmissions sometimes include information about tactical positions of officers during emergencies and direction on weapon deployment. There may be times, it states, "when it is in the public's best interest not to have this information broadcasted, such as during active shooter calls or crimes involving a criminal with more sophistication."
It does not, however, provide evidence of past cases in which unencrypted radio communication, which has been in place for more than 70 years, had hindered police operations.
The police department was one of several in the area to encrypt radios in response to the DOJ memo. Mountain View and Los Altos were among the cities that quickly followed Palo Alto's example. The trend has prompted state Sen. Josh Becker to introduce legislation that would give all law enforcement agencies until Jan. 1, 2023, to identify alternatives to radio encryption and to ensure that radio communication is available to the public.
Senate Bill 1000 states that this could be done by using unencrypted radio frequencies for nonsensitive information; by streaming radio communication online; or by providing access to encrypted communication to anyone who requests it for a "reasonable fee."
The new memo argues that the city should defer to take a position on this bill until the state Legislative Analyst publishes its evaluation of the bill. "At this time, it is not clear what additional tools may be provided by state legislation to address the requirements established by DOJ for CLETS (California Law Enforcement Telecommunications Systems) access," the memo states.
The memo also suggests in the report that the media have other ways to learn about police incidents, including news releases and social media postings issued by the police department. Those methods, however, don't allow the media to get information in real time or to independently verify it. The city has also recently created an online portal that shows an interactive map of police incidents. That map, however, does not provide specific locations or any descriptions of incidents, which only appear after the fact, making verification impossible.
In an interview last week to discuss SB 1000, Becker told this news organization that Palo Alto has been "at the tip of the spear" in switching to encryption. His legislation, he said, aims to balance the ability of police departments to protect private information while protecting the public's right to know what is happening in their communities.
"Especially with what the country has been going through in the last year or two, now is not the time to reduce access to police activity," Becker said.