BY DAVE PRICE
Daily Post Editor
A year after Palo Alto Police Chief Robert Jonsen decided to encrypt police radios — making it impossible for the public to monitor police activities in real time — he unveiled the Beta Police interactive map Calls for Service. In a press release, the police say it is a “better alternative to monitoring police radio scanners”.
It is absolutely false.
1. With a scanner, the public is informed of the incident at the same time that officers in the field are informed. With this card, information about an incident is displayed only after it has ended. At that time, the witnesses will have disappeared. It is therefore impossible for the press to obtain an independent account of the incident. Instead, we must rely solely on the police department’s version of events. For a department with a documented history of covering up police brutality, that’s not a good idea.
2. Police call information is vague. It does not say what happened, where it happened or how the police reacted.
3. The circles on the map that identify incidents are so large that it is impossible to determine where something happened.
4. When a user clicks on a circle, the information that appears does not make sense. What does “MedInfo” mean? An ambulance race? A 5150? A child with hiccups?
Like the decision to encrypt, the development of this map was done without any discussion with the community, especially end users.
Instead of this interactive map, the city should have reverted to unencrypted police radio frequencies and taken the same approach as the CHP, which broadcasts without encryption.
What is the CHP alternative?
In October 2020, the state Department of Justice’s Police Data Operation sent a memo to all local police departments telling them to encrypt their radios or find other ways to protect personal information.
Many law enforcement officers took this memo as a crypto warrant. It was wrong.
The memorandum gave departments a choice. Palo Alto opted for the most extreme and anti-transparent choice: encryption. But the CHP, which for technical reasons cannot encrypt on all its frequencies, has proposed an alternative acceptable to the Ministry of Justice.
Here’s how it works: When a CHP officer wants dispatchers to check someone’s driver’s license number to see if the license is suspended, the officer will radio the license number and the dispatcher will read it back to make sure he has heard correctly.
When the dispatcher responds to the agent with the results of the driver’s license check, they may provide the person’s first or last name, driver’s license number, and license status. This prevents the simultaneous transmission of a person’s full name and driver’s license number.
Additional information such as address, date of birth and physical descriptors would only be provided upon request.
The CHP alternative is a simple system that costs nothing to implement and is perfectly legal.
Encryption isn’t the only way Jonsen’s department reduces transparency. The police decided that journalists could no longer call the police to find out more about the crimes – all questions must go through the police information website. And, over the past two months, information on the police blotter has been significantly reduced.
The police blotter began in 1997 due to public outrage over the horrific murder of NASA scientist Bert Kay on Gilman Street. This brutal murder led to a town hall meeting where residents demanded that the police and city council provide more information to the public about the crimes. Kay’s killers have been arrested and released several times, and each time their crimes have become more violent. Yet the incidents were not known to the public, which angered people. At the end of the meeting, then-Councillor Liz Kniss and Chief of Police Lynne Johnson asked me if I would print a police blotter. Of course, I accepted. Soon, other mid-peninsula police departments began offering us their blotters.
Last month, Palo Alto police decided to reduce the amount of information in the blotter. And, again, the changes were made without any consultation with the community or end users.
1. We used to have more incidents. The logs are now shorter than before and the information is several days old.
2. The new blotter is vague. It is difficult to say what is reported. For example, the January 19 newspaper reads “Hit-and-run causing death or injury.” There is a big difference between the two. Did the victim go to the morgue or the hospital?
3. The new log does not contain incident details like the old one. What was stolen? A handbag? A bike? A garden statue?
Talk to reporters
Previously, journalists could call the police directly and inquire about a particular incident. Now, if a reporter has a question, they have to enter it on a portal on the police website. Sometimes a response arrives the same day, sometimes it takes days.
In some police forces, the boss makes a point of talking to the press every day. One example is longtime San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, who emails a note to the media almost every morning giving the status of various newsworthy cases. Then, at the end of the afternoon, he takes calls from journalists to answer their questions about what happened that day in the cases they could follow.
You would think that if Wagstaffe can do this every day, the Palo Alto police chief could do the same. This would allow the chief to keep a daily eye on current affairs with his officers so that he would be in the know when answering questions from the press. And by getting to know the reporters by talking to them every day, he would be more comfortable with the press. Sometimes I have found that police officers, who are extraordinarily brave under most circumstances, become unusually nervous around reporters.
The Palo Alto City Council should restore police transparency by taking the following steps: (1) direct the police to decrypt their radios and use the CHP alternative, (2) restore the police registry to its level of information before January 2022, (3 ) allow officers to speak directly to journalists again.
Chief Jonsen, a candidate for the position of sheriff, announced to the city his retirement. The board should not wait until he is gone to make these changes. This is a question that has been brewing for more than a year and should be on the board’s agenda immediately. The public has every right to know what their police department is doing.
Box: why police radios are important
For 70 years, people have been able to use police scanners to listen to their local police and fire department to find out what’s going on in their community. It is a check and balance on the application of the law.
For news agencies, it allows reporters and photographers to quickly get to the scene of an accident, fire, explosion, shooting or other newsworthy event, so that they can see for themselves what happened and tell you the story.
With encryption, law enforcement informs reporters of what happened long after the event is over.
For example, on a stormy night last year, trees collapsed, power lines fell, and there was flooding in different parts of Palo Alto. Typical procedure in this newsroom is to send a reporter on the road with a police scanner and camera to document what happened. In the next morning’s paper, the reader receives a report of storm damage in town, such as trees that have shattered houses or cars, floods, and fires.
But with encryption, we couldn’t make this story because our scanners were silent. Encryption eliminated the news you could read.
Some people have argued that criminals listen to scanners to get the personal information of people contacted by the police. Others argue that criminals will use police radio to avoid detection.
To test these theories, we submitted requests to Palo Alto, Los Altos, and Mountain View for all of these cases. None of the towns had anything. It doesn’t happen.