BY DAVE PRICE
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@example.com.
Previous stories about the encryption of police radios