As Palo Alto police switch to encrypted radio, newsroom scanners go silent

On January 5, the Palo Alto Police Department switched all police radio communications to an encrypted channel to comply with a state requirement. Embarcadero media file photo.

In a sudden move that will severely limit the ability of journalists and citizen observers to learn about crimes happening in local neighborhoods, the Palo Alto Police Department began encrypting all of its police radio communications Tuesday afternoon.

The policy change, which was passed without advance notice and without any direction from the City Council, is intended to bring the city into compliance with requirement which the California Department of Justice passed last October, according to the city.

Under this requirement, police agencies must protect personal information from state and federal databases from open radio frequency transmission. This includes information such as an individual’s name, driver’s license number, social security number and passport number. They are also required to restrict the release of “criminal justice information,” including a person’s criminal history, through an open channel.

The state order allows cities to meet the requirement in one of two ways. An agency may establish policies that limit the dissemination of personal information while transmitting other information over an open frequency. Or it could take a more restrictive approach and encrypt all its communications, effectively ending the decades-long journalistic practice of responding to breaking news based on information gleaned from a police scanner.

In an email to local media, the Palo Alto Police Department said it is taking the second approach. The department’s decision to encrypt the channel rather than invent other protocols to protect personal information was driven by the fact that this option is much easier and faster to implement, Police Chief Robert Jonsen told this news organization. He also said that since this is an operational matter, the City Council has no role in developing the new policy.

“It was the most sensible thing to do,” Jonsen said.

One option to protect only personal information and criminal information would be to require police officers to use other devices, such as cellphones, when transmitting personal information, he said. However, this can complicate the employee’s ability to quickly communicate information to all stakeholders.

“It becomes an employee safety issue if we have them crossing and jumping from one channel to another,” Jonsen said.

“While there are other options, developing protocols and practices would take a long time and likely have significant costs associated with it.”

He noted that the department’s technical services division is now prioritizing the implementation of a records management system to collect data on all police stops, a requirement of the Racial and Identity Profiling Act (RIPA). He noted that the department is open to reconsidering its encryption decision at a later date.

“We are open to options. We will not close the door if we find viable options and solutions,” Jonsen said.

With the policy change, Palo Alto joins a growing list of cities in and out of state that are switching to encrypted radio communications for privacy, tactical or both reasons. According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit organization that provides legal resources for journalists, the list of cities and counties that have recently made such a move to encrypted communication includes Denver, Colorado; Racine, Wisconsin; Sioux City, Iowa; Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; and Baltimore, Maryland.

The Simi Valley Police Department became the first agency in Ventura County to fully encrypt all of its radio communications last November, according to report in the Ventura County Star. Police Chief David Livingston told the Star that the department chose to move to full encryption because it was faster and easier to do so than to create a system where only sensitive information was transmitted over an encrypted channel. He also cited incidents where criminals used open police broadcasts to plan criminal activity, according to the paper.

However, the Star also reported that Livingston hoped the change would be temporary and that an agreement providing more public access could be found.

Lawmakers have made efforts to give the news media access to police broadcasts through decryption licenses, but those attempts have not been successful. Bills have been proposed in Colorado and California, including California’s AB1555. Introduced by Assemblyman Todd Gloria, D-San Diego, in 2019, it would allow members of the media to listen in on demand.

Jocelyn Dong, editor of the Palo Alto Weekly and Palo Alto Online, criticized Palo Alto’s policy of limiting public access to police information.

“The inability for the public, including the media, to access real-time information about police activities in the city’s neighborhoods is a major step backwards in both police transparency and public safety,” Dong said. “Access to police messages is essential given the lack of a reliable method of quickly obtaining information from the police. We hope that the city will choose communication methods that balance public disclosure with the need to communicate privately determined information.

IN blog post, Jonsen said the decision to encrypt all radio transmissions “does not change the police department’s commitment to transparency and public information sharing.” He also said all law enforcement agencies in Santa Clara County will adopt full encryption by the end of 2021.

The Justice Department directive does not set a deadline for police departments to implement a new encryption policy. However, it required them to submit an implementation plan by December 31, 2020.

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