Opinion: Police scanners and Civil Rights


Daily Post Editor

Police scanners played an important role in the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, according to Mountain View City Councilwoman Sally Lieber.

And this historic form of police transparency shouldn’t be thrown into the dust bin of history, Lieber told her colleagues on council March 23.

“I know a number of us recently had the occasion to attend the memorial service for Fred Hirsch from the plumbers union,” Lieber said of the South Bay labor activist who died in December at age 87. “He talked about his long involvement in the UFW (United Farm Workers union) and the Civil Rights movement, and how important scanners were as a tool for those movements, as well as the anti-war movement.”

“It was a primary tool for stopping and slowing racial injustices,” Lieber said.

Not only did the police scanners allow protesters to know where the cops were, but they allowed the public to keep track of protests. And police tend to behave when they know the public is observing them.

Last summer, during the Black Lives Matter protests, the website Broadcastify, which rebroadcasts police radio transmissions, reports that it had record audience levels.

Lieber asked the other six members of council to put on their agenda the encryption question on a future council agenda.

Who is in charge of the police?

Mountain View Police Chief Chris Hsiung decided on his own — without any public hearings or consultations with council — to encrypt his department’s radio communications. Chiefs in Palo Alto and Los Altos made the same decision. Menlo Park and Atherton are moving in that direction too.

“I’ve received a lot of comments from the community that the police department makes its own policy and the city council has no involvement in that,” Lieber said.

If you ask me, the police shouldn’t be making their own policies. They should be invited to provide their opinions about proposed policies, but the final decision should be that of the council members. That’s why we elect council members — to set policy.

It’s now up to the other council members to decide if they want to provide oversight of the police department. Palo Alto’s city council will discuss this on April 5. But Mountain View? We’ll see.

Lieber should be commended for trying to assert council’s proper role of providing oversight when it comes to police.

Securing personal information

In the past two months since police switched to encrypted radios, and the public has been debating the issue, a myth has popped up: That the encryption of all police radio frequencies is the only way to protect the personal information of residents.

That’s never been the issue.

Nobody is arguing that police should disclose personal information over the air.

The issue is whether police departments should be allowed to take the extreme step of encrypting all transmissions, or take a more transparent approach that only cloaks confidential information but allows the public to hear the remaining police radio activity.

An October memo from the California Department of Justice gives cities two alternatives:

1. full encryption or

2. a system where broadcasts remain accessible to the public, but officers switch to a different frequency that’s encrypted to discuss confidential information. They could also use their phones to discuss such information with dispatchers, as they have done for many years.

Other departments have figured out how to have public frequencies and separate encrypted channels for confidential information. The best known is the Chicago Police Department, the nation’s second largest metropolitan police force.

A June 2, 2020 article in the Chicago Sun-Times (paragraphs 14-17) points out that while the department has some encrypted frequencies, most officers use radios that aren’t encrypted. One advantage of this approach is that it allows other law enforcement agencies to listen to Chicago cops to improve coordination.

“The (Chicago Police Department’s Office of Emergency Management and Coordination) recognizes the benefits of unencrypted radio systems as it relates to both transparency and collaboration with other jurisdictions,” the head of that office, Dan Casey, told the tech website Builtin.com in a June 23, 2020 article.

I firmly believe that the local police departments, with guidance from their city councils, can find a balanced approach that keeps transmissions public with the exception of confidential information. The most extreme alternative isn’t always the best choice.

Editor Dave Price’s column appears on Mondays. His email address is [email protected].

Previous stories about the encryption of police radios

Jan. 6, Police cut off their radio transmissions to the public

Jan. 8, Editorial, Police decision to encrypt police radio transmissions reduces transparency

Jan. 11, Mayor says that encrypting police radio signals was a mistake

Jan. 11, Palo Alto Council will discuss police radio encryption, Mountain View will follow Palo Alto’s lead

Feb. 14, Opinion, Encryption isn’t a ‘mandate,’ it’s a choice

March 29, Police chief willing to consider alternatives to full encryption but lacks examples

April 1, One city is reluctant to switch to encrypted police radio


  1. Please, leave the police alone. They have a hard job that you could never do! The press just wants to listen and play ‘gotcha’ when they think the police have made a mistake. I trust the police and they don’t need anybody looking over their shoulders.

    • If you still trust the Palo Alto police with the multiple instances of abuse they’ve tried to cover up, then your certified crazy.

  2. How can you trust a police department that keeps secret things like the dog attack. It happened in June?? and it wasn’t revealed until January. And the community wasn’t told about Thomas DeStefano’s attack of Julio Arevalo until that became a legal matter a year after the fact. Then there was the n-word “joke” by Zach Perrone that was kept secret for how many years? When the police ‘disclose’ it’s usually in the form of a report from a police auditor who doesn’t mention names, dates, locations or anything specific. Shutting down the police scanners is another attempt by police to dodge transparency.

  3. In my encounters with Palo Alto police, I’ve always found the officers to be courteous and pleasant. I’ve got to think that the ones causing problems are few in number. But it seems like we don’t have a good way of rooting them out. Even when the city gets sued for their actions, they remain on the job. I don’t think there’s a need for encryption. That seems like we’re going too far in the direction of government secrecy. But I’d also like to see council explore what happens to officers who violate policy. Why do they remain on the job? Maybe there’s state employment laws that make it difficult to fire them? If so, an abusive officer needs to be taken off the streets and given a “desk job” until they can be fired. Allowing these “bad apples” to remain in the barrel will lead to problems with more officers. I hope council takes a close look at this personnel issue.

  4. Police also shut down the scanners here in Mountain View with no advance notice. I read that Sally Lieber wanted to review the situation, but none of her “woke” colleagues want to question the police. I guess they’re on the side of police reform whenever it’s convenient, but not when it counts.

Comments are closed.