BY BRADEN CARTWRIGHT
Daily Post Staff Writer
Instead of un-encrypting its police radios, Palo Alto City Council voted early this morning (April 5) to improve an online map that shows where and when police officers are responding to calls.
Council voted to have the map show the incidents in “near real time” and at their precise location. The existing online map shows calls after an incident is over, which prevents the media from going to the scene when the event is happening and taking photos or interviewing eyewitnesses.
City Manager Ed Shikada said he would have to run the change by the police union first. The police union is worried about having their real-time location available, Chief Robert Jonsen said.
The map, which would only be available to registered users, is the council’s alternative to un-encrypting police radios.
Daily Post publisher and editor Dave Price and Palo Alto Weekly publisher Bill Johnson were against the map. They argued that un-encrypting radios was the only way reporters could go to a scene, dispel rumors about incident and get a perspective from someone other than police.
“This is a First Amendment issue,” Price said.
A map with a time delay wouldn’t meet the needs of the press and the public, Price and Johnson said.
Johnson said the map doesn’t give “the texture of what’s going on” that listening to a police radio offers.
Only Councilman Greer Stone voted to pursue de-encryption.
“At the end of the day,” Stone said, “Our Framers included the right to a free press, and a robust press as well, and police radio encryption doesn’t further that. I think it’s incumbent on us as elected leaders to correct a major flaw in current city policy.”
Stone also led the push for council to discuss encryption, for the first time since the police department made the change 15 months ago. At a subcommittee meeting in February, he put the item on the full council’s agenda despite push back from City Attorney Molly Stump, who said the city had no discretion.
Palo Alto encrypted its radios in January 2021 after the state Department of Justice sent a memo to all law enforcement saying they must either encrypt their radios or create a policy that protects personally identifiable information.
Some agencies, like the California Highway Patrol and the San Mateo County Sheriff and Menlo Park police, started leaving out pieces of personal information when they read it over the radio. That meets the state’s standards of preventing personal information from going out over the air.
CHP Capt. Jason Cavett, who works at the patrol’s office in Redwood City, told Council that the DOJ looked at the CHP’s policy and training bulletin, and it was approved.
Other agencies, like Palo Alto and the rest of Santa Clara County, went to encryption. Chief Jonsen said Palo Alto followed the lead of Silicon Valley Regional Interoperability Authority, the joint powers authority that runs the police radio system in Santa Clara County.
The authority’s director, Eric Nickel, told council that Palo Alto could be sued if it un-encrypts its radio, and a change would make it harder to communicate during emergencies. Jonsen repeated Nickel’s points at the meeting.
Last year, when the encryption controversy erupted in Palo Alto, Chief Jonsen sent a letter to the DOJ asking for permission to return to un-encrypted radios. But Jonsen didn’t say in the letter that the city would prevent personal information from going out over the air like the CHP did. The DOJ asked departments in October 2020 to either encrypt or find another way to protect personal information.
The DOJ turned down Jonsen’s request.
Stone wanted Jonsen to submit a new letter to the California Department of Justice clarifying that if Palo Alto un-encrypts, then the city would still protect personal information like the CHP.
Stone’s motion to pursue un-encryption was changed following the lead of Mayor Pat Burt. Burt said the map could be improved without the “complexities” of un-encrypting.
Calls for service could be displayed within 15 minutes, Jonsen said. The police union has concerns about showing real time locations because of safety concerns, Jonsen said.
Burt said he didn’t understand why the union is concerned about safety from the map, when it would show less or the same as what unencrypted radios broadcasted.
Burt asked if the union didn’t want accountability, and if they were using change to get a protection they never had before.
Jonsen said the union has always been concerned about their locations being public, and officer safety is a more sensitive issue right now.
Councilman Tom DuBois asked Burt to have the city consult the media about the map too, along with the unions. He asked Price if a 15-minute delay would work, and Price said reporters wouldn’t make it to the scene of most incidents.
Price also told council that he learned tonight that the police unions are the reason why every time a solution is proposed, another issue comes up — like whack-a-mole.
“Who the hell elected the police unions?” he said.
Councilman Eric Filseth also said the city should work with the media, and he understands why the unions must be consulted.
“We live in a collective bargaining world,” he said.
But Burt declined DuBois’s request to include the media in conversations.
Darren Numoto, the city’s director of IT, said a new map with a registration requirement would take about four weeks to prepare.
Council also voted unanimously to support Senate Bill 1000, a bill proposed by state Sen. Josh Becker, D-Menlo Park, that would require all cities to un-encrypt. As the bill is currently written, Palo Alto’s map wouldn’t fulfill the bill’s requirements that departments un-encrypt, but the bill is in the early stages.
Eight members of the public spoke to council, and seven of them were in favor of un-encrypting.
Bob Moss said a reporter getting to a scene would help prevent excessive force by police officers because they know they’re being watched. Moss also said his neighborhood organization once had a member who listened to the police scanner and then warned residents about criminal activity in their neighborhood. He said it was a good way to keep the neighborhood safe.
Kat Snyder said police radios are one of the last avenues for real police oversight, given that individual officers aren’t allowed to talk to the media anymore.
Aram James illustrated the department’s unwillingness to provide public information by listing three high-profile incidents where police seriously injured people, and the public didn’t learn about it until months later.
Winter Dellenbach said she didn’t think threats from the Silicon Valley Regional Interoperability Authority, the joint powers agency that runs the radio system for Palo Alto and 14 other cities and special districts, should sway Palo Alto’s response.
The authority has claimed that there would be a problem if Palo Alto was un-encrypted when other police agencies were encrypted. However, from Jan. 5 to March 1 of 2021, Palo Alto was encrypted while Mountain View and Los Altos were un-encrypted. Also, Menlo Park, East Palo Alto, the San Mateo County Sheriff and other agencies north of Palo Alto are not encrypted. San Mateo County Sheriff Carlos Bolanos told the Post on Monday that he will not encrypt his main dispatch frequency unless ordered to do so by the state.