Opinion: Palo Alto should consider the CHP’s alternative to police radio encryption

Police scanners in the Daily Post newsroom.

OPINION

BY DAVE PRICE
Daily Post Editor

When Palo Alto Police Chief Bob Jonsen encrypted his department’s police radios in January, he said he was following a state Department of Justice mandate to protect people’s personal information transmitted over the airwaves.

Mountain View and Los Altos quickly followed his lead.

But now it turns out that the CHP doesn’t plan to follow the “mandate” that Palo Alto was so quick to obey.

Here’s why this issue is important. For 70 years, people have been able to use police scanners listen into their local police and firefighters as a way of knowing what’s going on in their community. It’s a check-and-balance on law enforcement.

Less news, more secrecy

For news organizations, it allows reporters and photographers to get to the scene of an accident, fire, explosion, shooting or other newsworthy event quickly, so they can see for themselves what happened and bring the story to you.

With encryption, police agencies tell reporters what happened long after the event has ended.

For instance, on a stormy night in February, trees were crashing down, power lines were falling and there was flooding in different parts of Palo Alto.The typical procedure in this newsroom is to send a reporter out on the road with a police scanner and a camera to document what happened. In the next morning’s paper, the reader gets a report on the damage the storm did in town, such as the trees that smashed through houses or cars, the flooding and the fires.

This year we weren’t able to do that story because our scanners were silent. The only thing this mandate did was reduce the amount of local news you got.

Some people have argued that criminals listen into the scanners to get the personal information of people contacted by police. Others argue that criminals will use the police radio to avoid detection.

No examples

To test those theories, we submitted requests with Palo Alto, Los Altos and Mountain View for all such cases. None of the cities had anything. It simply doesn’t happen.
Still, the CHP was not oblivious to such concerns when it decided to skip the encryption mandate. The CHP went to a new policy last October regarding how personal information is transmitted. The policy calls for leaving pieces of personal information out of the transmissions, making it useless to criminals.

How the CHP’s policy works

For example, when an officer wants dispatchers to check someone’s driver’s license number for information such as whether the license is suspended, the officer will give the license number over the radio and the dispatcher will read it back to make sure they’ve heard it correctly.

When the dispatcher responds to the officer with the results of the driver’s license check, they can give either the person’s first name or last name, the driver’s license number and the status of the license. That prevents transmission of someone’s full name and their driver’s license number at the same time.

Additional information such as address, date of birth, and physical descriptors would only be provided when requested.

The CHP also declined to encrypt because it is sticking with analog radios, which do a good job of covering long distances. Palo Alto and the rest of Santa Clara County bought a digital system from Motorola that works fine in cities but not over long distances.

It doesn’t appear as if the Department of Justice is going to punish the CHP for its response to this mandate.

This CHP policy was in effect when Palo Alto encrypted its radios in January. Unfortunately, Palo Alto switched to encryption without the benefit of a public hearing. Had there been such a hearing, the new CHP policy would have been brought up and discussed, and council could have told police to follow it instead of going to encryption.

The purpose of a public hearing is to bring out information that could improve a proposed policy. But when a chief acts unilaterally, he deprives himself of the advice and counsel of other thoughtful people in the community. If criminals aren’t taking advantage of police radios, then how does the public benefit from encrypting police radios?

Editor Dave Price’s column appears on Mondays. His email address is price@padailypost.com.

7 Comments

  1. Thank you for this. There are so many incidents we’ve seen with our own eyes that never make the police blotter which is intolerable and lead to unsubstantiated rumors about what the police report. Late one night, to pick one example, I noticed rotating police lights and it turns out they’d blocked off the street across from me. There was another cop car with lights flashing about 2 blocks down but no ambulances, no sirens. I still wonder what happened since there was a major show of force for 2 hours. Was it a major crime? Was there a visiting dignitary? Who knows. Not us.

  2. Still beating this drum? Yes, criminals are actively using a smartphone application to monitor when police are notified of the crime they are committing.

    The examples you asking for are not recorded because the criminals did not get caught. Your anger at Palo Alto Police is not only painting an ugly picture but you are further inciting the distrust of media with law enforcement when you should be working together to protect the community.

    Glad I am in a broadcast media that has partnerships with our regional government organization and not an adverse ones. In my experience they are not trying to hide anything. They are too busy and are not your personal reporters. They will get you the information when they can.

    • Your observation on criminals and their use of the police scanner app is plausible. However, given you accusations, you’re either not a local or you lack a frame of reference or context regarding this issue as it applies to Palo Alto. As a local, I can tell you my interactions with the PAPD, as a POC, the two times I have been a victim of a crime/assaulted in Palo Alto have been excellent: the officers were quick to arrive and were respectful, courteous and above and beyond in their duty. However, the leadership of PAPD is also the subject of a lawsuit by their own officers regarding workplace harassment. On the heels of this lawsuit comes a long-serving officer’s resignation in which he directly cited PAPD’s toxic leadership as reason for his departure.There’s more, but i’m sure you get the point. As a former dispatcher for another agency, I think PAPD’s continuing stance on radio encryption in light of these internal issues gives support to the idea that there may be a serious issue with the department’s leadership. I can tell you from experience, it’s not hard to make those small adjustments over comms to protect citizen’s privacy while still fulfilling our duty to the public.

  3. Really says: “criminals are actively using a smartphone application to monitor when police are notified of the crime they are committing”

    Got any proof of that?

    Really says: “the criminals did not get caught”

    Any proof of that?

    Really says: “In my experience they are not trying to hide anything.”

    So how do you explain why police kept secret the K9 attack of a man sleeping in his backyard? Why the months and months of secrecy? It was an attack on the wrong person, who had done nothing wrong. He required hospitalization. Seems like to me the cops, both Mountain View and Palo Alto, were trying to keep the attack secret.

    But Really thinks they’re not trying to “they are not trying to hide anything.”

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