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Palo Alto police push back against attempts to reverse radio encryption

New memo claims reverting to unencrypted radio is 'infeasible'

The Palo Alto City Council is scheduled to discuss police encryption at its meeting on April 4, 2022. Embarcadero Media file photo.

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.

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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.

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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.

Gennady Sheyner
 
Gennady Sheyner covers the City Hall beat in Palo Alto as well as regional politics, with a special focus on housing and transportation. Before joining the Palo Alto Weekly/PaloAltoOnline.com in 2008, he covered breaking news and local politics for the Waterbury Republican-American, a daily newspaper in Connecticut. Read more >>

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Palo Alto police push back against attempts to reverse radio encryption

New memo claims reverting to unencrypted radio is 'infeasible'

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Fri, Mar 25, 2022, 4:33 pm

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.

Comments

felix
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 25, 2022 at 6:00 pm
felix, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Mar 25, 2022 at 6:00 pm

We don’t want to rely on the PAPDs social media or its own press releases. Or the City’s.

The whole point is for the press, and hence the public, to have independent immediate access to information free of spin - which the PAPD and City well know. To pretend otherwise is disingenuous.

This is a matter of First Amendment Free Press that the police are trying to shut down.

The City should support Beckers Bill now so others in the Legislature will know Palo Alto is all in and they should be too.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 26, 2022 at 10:10 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Mar 26, 2022 at 10:10 am

More pushback against transparency while crime rises, while we get "requests for help" from PAPD days after the fact as if we remember which way a white car was driving days ago, when we keep reading posts like the recent one on Nextdoor wondering what 6 cop cars and suspects in handcuffs at Colorado Ave were all about....

LUDICROUS. The current police chief shouldn't be running for County Sheriff and it's high time for the Asst. Police Chief to stop this nonsense along with the City Manager and City Council.


Barbara G
Registered user
Mayfield
on Mar 28, 2022 at 10:45 am
Barbara G, Mayfield
Registered user
on Mar 28, 2022 at 10:45 am

PAPD and other public servants - including the City Council - conduct far too much business in private. This is unacceptable. No discussion or negotiation needed.

There is literally no reason for closed doors unless they're hiding inappropriate and/or illegal activities. Period.


ArtL
Registered user
Barron Park
on Mar 28, 2022 at 11:03 am
ArtL, Barron Park
Registered user
on Mar 28, 2022 at 11:03 am

This is why Palo Alto needs to hire a police chief who will make transparency and openness of police activity paramount. This requires a chief whose primary focus will be supporting the interests of citizens, in addition to suppporting the men and women of the police force. We love the police - it's a very hard job , but we want the police to love us, too.


rita vrhel
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Mar 28, 2022 at 12:19 pm
rita vrhel, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Mar 28, 2022 at 12:19 pm

Agree with the comments above. We elect the City Council; they are tasked with setting what happens in Palo Alto. NOT the Police Chief or the City Manager. both work at the direction of the elected City Council.

Over the last several years it has been harder and harder to find information on the changed City website. Before it was so easy.

Packets are sent to the City Council, PTC and ARB (by staff) which do not contain vital information but are linked.. making it harder for the City Council members to find information.

Public Records Requests do not contain documents attached to staff emails.....making the information incomplete.

My 6/21 request for all information to date on the Melville Public Utility Easement crucial to Castilleja's expansion plans/underground garage has not been received despite email requests to Amy French, help from Brad Eggleston and an email to PA's City Manager.

Question: Is there any proof/ statistics/data showing that not having encryption puts our police at risk? Should be easy enough to answer.

City Council: please take back control of Palo Alto governance! Don't let others make the rules in private. Thank you.


Barron Parker Too
Registered user
Barron Park
on Mar 28, 2022 at 5:54 pm
Barron Parker Too, Barron Park
Registered user
on Mar 28, 2022 at 5:54 pm

Becker, along with several progressive members of the California Senate are on a roll to take control away from local (city and county) governments, in all ways they can. For example, the California senate has pushed (and Newsom has signed) SB9 and SB10, which will allow a large number of housing units to be built on R1 lots throughout the city and especially along "transportation corridors" -- nullifying all local regulation and planning. Palo Alto has been looking for ways to avoid having this crammed down our throats (metaphorically).

Becker's SB1000 is yet another example of Sacramento legislative overreach. The sensible approach for Palo Alto is to admit the reasonableness of the request by the police, which is simply to wait for legislative analysis of SB1000, and in particular, of the alternatives to full encryption. Palo Alto should not be rushed into taking a stand in opposition to our police force, by armchair activists who neither understand the dangers of having police communications in the open and monitored by criminals, nor appreciate the logistical issues the police face that are associated with alternatives to encryption.


Crescent Park Mom
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Mar 28, 2022 at 6:15 pm
Crescent Park Mom, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Mar 28, 2022 at 6:15 pm

The jobs of our first responders are hard enough. They know what they need to get their jobs done well and safely. Palo Alto first responders are good people. I don't need to breathe down their necks. If they say its better for communications to stay encrypted, fine with me.


Jim Donnegan
Registered user
Los Altos
on Mar 31, 2022 at 9:48 am
Jim Donnegan, Los Altos
Registered user
on Mar 31, 2022 at 9:48 am

The question is...why are the police so adamant about concealing their communications & activities from the public?

Law enforcement security measures is not an acceptable nor a logical reason.


Duveneck neighbor
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 31, 2022 at 10:36 am
Duveneck neighbor, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Mar 31, 2022 at 10:36 am

@Crescent Park Mom:

The problem is, we can no longer trust what our police and related managers (City Mgr, PD Chief, City Attorney, Medical Examiner) say.

We know they hide information from the public which demonstrates their illegal and unethical and immoral behaviors.

We know it is not simply one 'bad apple', but that all the officers who observe bad behavior on our behalf, fail in their sworn duty to report, criticize, correct.

We know we the people have paid millions of dollars in lawsuits related to this illegal, unethical, and immoral behavior.

Therefore, police have demonstrated they, as a group, not simply as individuals, are no longer worthy of our trust.

It is false to say, 'Palo Alto responders are good people.' They have proven otherwise. It is a non sequitur to say, 'If they say its better for communications to stay encrypted', then their word is all we need. Their word has been proven untrustworthy.

We must identify law enforcement personnel willing to work with us all, to improve training, tactics, and technology, to at once keep the public safe, AND keep law enforcement staff safe. Both objectives are achievable, at once; one objective does not exclude the other. Those unwilling to work with us... those who insist on the status quo of power, secrecy, and repeated bad behavior, must be given full pensions, and shown the door.


Peter Carpenter
Registered user
Menlo Park
on Mar 31, 2022 at 3:50 pm
Peter Carpenter, Menlo Park
Registered user
on Mar 31, 2022 at 3:50 pm

We have a nice natural experiment here - some agencies have had encryption in place for months. Was there any change in those agencies performance i.e. did they catch more criminals while being encrypted? If not, then why encrypt?


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 1, 2022 at 6:14 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Apr 1, 2022 at 6:14 pm

@Peter Carpenter, excellent question. It would be nice to have answers.

Also, it was interesting how the other paper handled its PAPD police blotter listing earlier this week; instead of publishing a few crimes they devoted the entire entry to calling out PAPD for consistently providing incomplete police blotter entries. The next day they corrected a police blotter entry to provide much more complete information.


Annette
Registered user
College Terrace
on Apr 2, 2022 at 9:40 am
Annette, College Terrace
Registered user
on Apr 2, 2022 at 9:40 am

I hope Santa Clara County voters are paying close attention to what's going on in Palo Alto.


Luke Hoskins
Registered user
Palo Alto Hills
on Apr 2, 2022 at 9:50 am
Luke Hoskins, Palo Alto Hills
Registered user
on Apr 2, 2022 at 9:50 am

The city's top administrators are most likely under pressure from the police union not to disclose any information that may be perceived as unflattering towards the PAPD & its officers.

As a result, encryption measures have been implemented by the chief of police.


Peter Carpenter
Registered user
Menlo Park
on Apr 2, 2022 at 10:33 am
Peter Carpenter, Menlo Park
Registered user
on Apr 2, 2022 at 10:33 am

Over the years I have counseled a lot of young people considering public safety careers.

In general (but not always) those wanting to be in control become police officers and those wishing to take care of others become firefighters.

That selection bias shapes the culture of both police departments and fire departments.

I have never seen a firefighter or fire department that was not proud of the public display of their fire calls.

Web Link


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 2, 2022 at 11:34 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Apr 2, 2022 at 11:34 am

Excellent reminder, Annette, but sort of unlikely given the fragmentation of the local media. Wondering what sort of endorsements he'll get for his run as sheriff and whose quotes he'll use in his ads.


Eeyore (formerly StarSpring)
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 3, 2022 at 9:07 pm
Eeyore (formerly StarSpring), Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Apr 3, 2022 at 9:07 pm

We don’t need secrets police,. Fire the City. manager (should have been done long ago), along with the police chief. We don’t need a Donald Trump mindset to take root here.


Pat Broderick
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 4, 2022 at 11:02 am
Pat Broderick, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Apr 4, 2022 at 11:02 am

"Fire the City. manager (should have been done long ago), along with the police chief. "

Easier said than done + an ongoing question remains...why is the PACC so ineffectual towards addressing and resolving these issues?


Annette
Registered user
College Terrace
on Apr 6, 2022 at 1:08 pm
Annette, College Terrace
Registered user
on Apr 6, 2022 at 1:08 pm

And why is Jonsen the one the City is turning to for leadership on this? He's put himself – and thus the City - in a compromised position. He has resigned and he is running for Sheriff. It makes sense that he will want/need Union support to be elected. The Union favors encryption. It's not much of a leap to conclude that, when Jonsen asked the DOJ if Palo Alto could revert to being un-encrypted, the question was asked in a way that elicited the "NO" answer that he hoped for. This is a very disturbing development. And surprising given the tenor of the discussion and the Q&A at Monday's CC meeting.

Transparency foiled by concerns about “interoperability”. If that doesn’t smack of unnecessary, unproductive, bureaucratic sausage, nothing does. I want the police to be safe, but do not accept that this has to come at the expense of transparency.


Peter Carpenter
Registered user
Menlo Park
on Apr 6, 2022 at 1:10 pm
Peter Carpenter, Menlo Park
Registered user
on Apr 6, 2022 at 1:10 pm

We have had decades of open police radio transmissions.

Please document how anyone has been harmed by that.

Allowing the police to operate in secret means that we will have a secret police - is that what the citizens want?


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 6, 2022 at 1:19 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Apr 6, 2022 at 1:19 pm

""Fire the City. manager (should have been done long ago), along with the police chief. "

Easier said than done + an ongoing question remains...why is the PACC so ineffectual towards addressing and resolving these issues?"

Maybe because the previous CC under Liz Kniss awarded him a full extra year's salary, benefits and vesting if he's forced to resign or fired. The fact that she insisted that he be the ONLY candidate interviewed and that he learned to add that golden parachute clause when he left his job in San Jose didn't matter to her.


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