Midpeninsula Post

Palo Alto Police Department to continue radio encryption, despite controversy

Palo Alto city hall in June 2021. (Arya Nasikkar)

Amid calls for the Palo Alto Police Department to decrypt its radio transmissions, the city council earlier this month instead opted to develop a platform for registered users to access near-live information on police activity.

Radio encryption has been a hot topic since January of last year, when a California Department of Justice order mandated that police departments encrypt personal information such as names, driver’s license numbers and other personal identifiers when transmitted over the radio. 

Prior to the order, officers had to transmit personally identifying information over a radio channel shared with other first responders that’s accessible to the public by commercial scanners and smartphone apps.

The order allowed police departments to either encrypt their public channels, create a separate encrypted channel or else find another way to communicate sensitive information. The Palo Alto Police Department opted to immediately encrypt its radio channel.

At the council’s April 4 meeting, widespread concerns over police transparency fueled controversy over how to manage the department’s radio communications. Pro-encryption arguments centered around the efficacy of police operations and the threat of compromising cross-county communications. 

The Public Right to Police Radio Communications Act (Senate Bill-1000), introduced by State Senator Josh Becker — which requires that local law enforcement agencies make radio communications accessible to the public — recently resparked the radio encryption debate. 

Currently, the encryption process used by Palo Alto police makes radio transmissions inaccessible by public airwaves. This presented a problem: The city needed to provide some measure of access to its police communications.

The council’s solution? Development of the current “Police Calls for Service Interactive Map,” which shows vague areas of police activity in the last 24 hours.

To make the platform more transparent and satisfy Senate Bill-1000, the city will narrow the location of the calls and add a five to 15-minute delay — a security measure for police transmissions that would still provide “near real-time” information for the public, according to Mayor Patrick Burt. 

Individuals must register to use the program, ensuring that a leak of dangerous information will not affect police in the field. It’s estimated that it will take city staff roughly one month to get the new program online.

Councilmember Greer Stone voiced strong support for reverting the police department back to its decrypted form of radio transmissions, though the process to continue encrypting the network passed by a 6-1 vote against Stone. 

“I think it’s absolutely critical that we are trying to restore that faith in police, especially given such a large breakdown in trust and faith of law enforcement institutions across the country over the past few years,” Stone said in the meeting. “The staff recommendation [to continue encrypting radio transmissions] really does not further that goal, and for me is unacceptable.”

A handful of residents spoke in agreement with Stone. During the public comment section, seven residents spoke in favor of decrypted radio transmissions, arguing that it would allow local news outlets to spread and access vital information faster, and that media presence could lead officers to use less excessive force. 

The ability for reporters to listen to unencrypted police transmissions is one of local journalists’ most valuable assets, said Dave Price and Bill Johnson, Palo Alto Daily Post publisher and Palo Alto Weekly publisher, respectively. 

Price and Johnson claimed that — especially at the local level — the ability of local journalists to spread information quickly was a matter of public safety and transparency.

“The people in this community know that when there’s something going on, in that moment … the place they turn to is our website [the Palo Alto Weekly] to find out what’s going on,” Johnson said during the meeting. “That’s an example of a public service that’s being performed … [so] that you don’t have anxiety and panic where it’s not needed in the community.”

Residents also voiced concern over a backsliding of transparency within the police department, describing efforts to encrypt police radio traffic as “steps backward in Palo Alto police transparency” and adding that the “culture of police in the country is very resistant to transparency and accountability.” 

“We can’t afford to lose any transparency,” resident Scott O’Neil said. “I don’t think the calls for service platforms is a compelling idea. So, please, unlock the scanner.”

In an attempt to counter possible backsliding of police transparency, the council voted to increase communications between police senior staff and the media. Palo Alto staff also said the city will send a letter in support of Senate Bill-1000.

“What I think we should be doing tonight is focusing on what are the options available to us today that allow us to continue to function in a disaster,” Councilmember Alison Cormack said. “To me, that option is remaining encrypted so we can continue to partner with the other people in this county.”

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