BY BRADEN CARTWRIGHT
Daily Post Editor
Instead of cracking its police radios, the Palo Alto City Council voted early this morning (April 5) to improve an online map that shows where and when police are responding to calls.
The Council voted for the map to show incidents in “near real time” and in their precise location. The existing online map shows calls after an incident is over, preventing media from visiting the scene when the event is happening and taking pictures or interviewing eyewitnesses.
City manager Ed Shikada said he should lead the change through the police union first. The police union is concerned about the availability of its position in real time, Chief Robert Jonsen said.
The card, which would only be available to registered users, is the council’s alternative to decrypting police radios.
Daily Post publisher and editor Dave Price and Palo Alto Weekly publisher Bill Johnson were against the card. They argued that decrypting radios was the only way for reporters to get to the scene, dispel rumors about the incident and get the perspective of someone other than the police.
“This is a First Amendment issue,” Price said.
A map with a time limit would not 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 does.
Only Councilman Greer Stone voted in favor of the decryption.
“Ultimately,” Stone said, “our framers included the right to a free press, as well as a robust press, and police radio encryption goes no further. It is incumbent on elected leaders to correct a major flaw in current municipal politics.
Stone also led the push for the council to discuss encryption, for the first time since the police department made the switch 15 months ago. At a subcommittee meeting in February, he put the item on the full council agenda despite pushback from city attorney Molly Stump, who said the city doesn’t 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 the information personally identifiable.
Some agencies, like the California Highway Patrol and the San Mateo and Menlo Park County Sheriff’s Police, have begun to leave out personal information when they read it over the radio. This meets state standards to prevent the broadcast of personal information over the air.
CHP Captain Jason Cavett, who works out of the patrol’s office in Redwood City, told the council that the DOJ reviewed the CHP’s policy and training bulletin, and it was approved.
Other agencies, like Palo Alto and the rest of Santa Clara County, have turned to encryption. Chief Jonsen said Palo Alto followed the lead of the Silicon Valley Regional Interoperability Authority, the joint authority that operates the police radio system in Santa Clara County.
Authority Director Eric Nickel told the council that Palo Alto could be sued if he cracked his radio, and that a change would make it harder to communicate in an emergency. Jonsen repeated Nickel’s points in the reunion.
Last year, when the encryption controversy erupted in Palo Alto, Chief Jonsen sent a letter to the DOJ asking for permission to return to unencrypted radios. But Jonsen did not say in the letter that the city would prevent the broadcast of personal information over the air like the CHP has done. The DOJ instructed departments in October 2020 to encrypt or find another way to protect personal information.
The DOJ denied Jonsen’s request.
Stone wanted Jonsen to submit a new letter to the California Department of Justice stating that if Palo Alto broke the code, the city would still protect personal information like CHP.
Stone’s motion to proceed with the decryption was changed following Mayor Pat Burt’s initiative. Burt said the map could be improved without the “complexities” of decryption.
Service calls could be posted within 15 minutes, Jonsen said. The police union is concerned about showing real-time locations due to security concerns, Jonsen said.
Burt said he didn’t understand why the union was concerned about the card’s security, when it would show less or the same as what the unencrypted radios were broadcasting.
Burt asked if the union didn’t want to be accountable and if he was using the change to gain protection he never had before.
Jonsen said the union has always been concerned about their locations being public and that officer safety is a more sensitive issue at this time.
Councilman Tom DuBois asked Burt that the city also consult the media about the map, as well as the unions. He asked Price if a 15-minute delay would work, and Price said reporters wouldn’t go to the scene of most incidents.
Price also told the council that he learned tonight that police unions are the reason that every time a solution is offered, another problem pops up – like a mole.
“Who the hell elected the police unions?” he said.
Councilor Eric Filseth also said the city should work with the media, and he understands why unions need to be consulted.
“We live in a world of collective bargaining,” he said.
But Burt declined DuBois’ request to include the media in the conversations.
Darren Numoto, the city’s IT manager, said a new card with a registration requirement would take about four weeks to prepare.
The 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 decrypt. As the bill is currently drafted, the Palo Alto map would not meet the bill’s requirements for departments to decipher, but the bill is in its early stages.
Eight members of the public spoke to the council, and seven of them were in favor of the decryption.
Bob Moss said a reporter visiting the scene would help prevent excessive force from police because they know they are being watched. Moss also said his neighborhood organization once had a member who listened to the police scanner and then warned residents of 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 surveillance, as individual officers are no longer allowed to speak to the media.
Aram James illustrated the department’s reluctance to provide public information by listing three high-profile incidents in which police seriously injured people, and the public were not made aware of them until months later.
Winter Dellenbach said she doesn’t think threats from the Silicon Valley Regional Interoperability Authority, the joint powers agency that operates the radio system for Palo Alto and 14 other cities and special districts, should influence Palo’s response. Alto.
The authority claimed there would be a problem if Palo Alto was unencrypted while other police departments were encrypted. However, from January 5 to March 1, 2021, Palo Alto was encrypted while Mountain View and Los Altos were unencrypted. Additionally, Menlo Park, East Palo Alto, San Mateo County Sheriff, and other agencies north of Palo Alto are unencrypted. San Mateo County Sheriff Carlos Bolanos told the Post on Monday that he would not encrypt his primary dispatch frequency unless ordered by the state.