BY DAVE PRICE
Daily Post Editor
The Palo Alto Police Department has taken a step in the right direction in announcing that it will be dropping the encryption of its radios.
This will enable the public and news media to once again hear the activities of police.
Since the 1940s, people have been able to buy a police radio or police scanner and listen to dispatch calls of police. The government, after all, is supposed to be the servant of the people, and the people have every right to monitor the activities of their government.
But in recent years, government at all levels has become less transparent. In January 2021, then Palo Alto Police Chief Bob Jonsen decided to encrypt his department’s radios. The media and public got only an hour’s notice of his decision.
The decision never went to City Council. You’d expect that in a town like Palo Alto, where we have long debates about city policy, that something as important as police transparency would have been the subject of a public hearing.
The decision was made without considering the alternatives. A state government memo reminding police departments about policies of keeping certain information confidential gave the city two choices — encrypt the radios or find another way to keep that information private while allowing the public to hear the radio transmissions. Jonsen jumped at the first alternative. Turns out other agencies, such as Menlo Park, the CHP and the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, decided not to encrypt but instead provide just partial information to keep the confidential data from going over the air.
Unencrypted police radio transmissions allow reporters to get to the scene of a news story while it’s happening. Reporters can find witnesses who might not be there later. Unencrypted radios allow for emergency information to reach the public faster.
No advantage to criminals
Some people in Palo Alto were happy police encrypted, saying the broadcasting of police activities would give criminals an advantage. The Post did public record requests to see if there were any reports of people using data heard over the radio to commit crimes. There were no such reports.
We asked if criminals had been aided by listening to the police radio. Again, no such reports.
It was if encryption was a solution waiting for a problem.
Later we asked the head of the police union, Ken Kratt, if he favored encryption. He said he didn’t mind if the public was listening.
But for some reason, the controversy dragged on for 20 months.
Most of the residents I spoke with said they wanted the city to drop encryption. The fear was that encryption was another step the city had taken to reduce transparency to coverup for misdeeds of its employees.
Jonsen retired so that he could run for sheriff.
His replacement is assistant (and currently acting) Chief Andrew Binder. City Manager Ed Shikada has appointed Binder as chief, and council will vote to confirm the appointment tonight (Aug 8).
For more than a year, Binder has been working to improve the department’s relationship with the media and the public. With this decision to end encryption, he’s gotten off on the right foot.
There are many who should be singled out for their advocacy of the public’s right to know. They include:
• Palo Alto City Councilman Greer Stone, who fearlessly argued to end encryption.
• State Sen. Josh Becker, who introduced Senate Bill 1000 that would ban encryption statewide. Becker isn’t afraid to go against the tide in pursuit of good government.
• The Post’s rival, the Palo Alto Weekly, including Publisher Bill Johnson, Editor Jocelyn Dong and Columnist Diana Diamond. They published hard-hitting stories and persuasive editorials.
• And the many Palo Altans who made it clear they were going to hold city officials responsible if encryption didn’t end.
Now that Palo Alto is dropping encryption, and Menlo Park never switched to it, residents of Los Altos and Mountain View should be asking their leaders why they continue to encrypt their police radios.
Editor Dave Price’s column appears on Mondays. His email address is email@example.com.