Opinion: 55 days later, DOJ did not respond to request for information on encryption of police radios


Daily post editor

When a government agency is proud of what it has done, it will ask a public relations official to send out a press release to the media touting its accomplishment. Sometimes they will have a press conference where officials can slap each other on the back and give each other attaboys.

Of course, when the government does something embarrassing, it tries to say as little as possible.

Last October, the state’s Justice Department quietly released a memo to local state police departments, which will result in reduced police transparency.

In the memo, the Department of Justice’s California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System CLETS said local police departments should encrypt their radio frequencies or find some other way to keep certain information confidential.

There has been no public announcement regarding this memo or the new direction CLETS was taking. The public had been able to listen to police radios for about 70 years. But now that form of transparency would be removed. After all, what gives citizens the right to keep tabs on their government anyway? (It’s the same mentality some cops exhibit when they try to stop people from filming an arrest. These cops think they escape public scrutiny.)

You would think that if the state were proud of the move, Governor Gavin Newsom and then Attorney General Xavier Becerra would have held a press conference to tell people how much improved encryption will bring them back to life.

No notice

The memo led a handful of Bay Area police departments – including Palo Alto, Mountain View, and Los Altos – to quickly switch to full encryption without public notice. Other agencies seem to have ignored the memo, which has no legal effect anyway.

The memo reminded agencies that there were state and federal policies that prohibited the disclosure of personally identifiable information or data from a state criminal database.

These policies are not laws. A policy is something written by a bureaucrat but never approved by the legislature. Many policies would never receive the approval of elected officials. Policies are often attempts to bypass lawmakers.

Alternatives to encryption

There are alternatives to encryption, such as an agent picking up a phone and calling dispatchers, or receiving the information via text or computer in a police car.

San Francisco is moving to another alternative to full encryption. See the related story.

These alternatives have never been publicly considered in Palo Alto, Mountain View or Los Altos. No public hearing took place. The decision was made behind closed doors and, in the case of Palo Alto, was made to the public about an hour before the take was pulled on January 5.

Palo Alto City Council members raised questions about the encryption during a hearing on April 5, but no action was taken as it was a study session where official decisions are not not taken. Council members said they wanted to revisit the matter at a formal hearing where binding votes can be taken. No date has been set for such a hearing.

The civil servant will not speak

While the council is interested in this issue, no one at the state level is willing to discuss this change in police policy.
We tried several times to interview Joe Dominic, the director of CLETS, who wrote the memo. He wouldn’t take our calls.

So on March 30, the Daily Post filed a public records law request with the DOJ for more information.

We requested documents that would show the discussions that took place between the local police departments and the Department of Justice’s California law enforcement telecommunications system, CLETS.

State open registrations law requires an agency to receive a request for a response within 10 days. On day 10, we received an email saying the DOJ needed more time because we were requesting a “large amount” of files.

On April 16, we amended the request to include the plans that local law enforcement agencies were supposed to submit in response to the memo. We asked for the plans because we were wondering if other departments had come up with methods to protect confidential information without going to extremes like encryption.

Today is the 55th day since we made our first request. We still haven’t received an information page.

You have the right to know

The public is asking for more transparency from the police, especially after the protests last summer. This memo sends the state in the opposite direction reducing transparency. I think the public has a right to know why the state has changed its leadership.

Editor Dave Price column appears on Mondays. His email address is [email protected]

Note that the delay was in its 55th day on May 24 when this was posted.

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