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By Diana Diamond

PA Police: Too drastic a decision on banning police information from public

Uploaded: Jan 10, 2021

The Palo Alto Police Department definitely made a mistake when it abruptly sent an email to local media on Tuesday, Jan. 5, stating that starting immediately the police would encrypt all its radio transmissions. This order was made without any public input and without the mayor or city council knowing about it.

This public ban on the broadcasting of all police activities to newspapers and residents was the result of a new state order from the Department of Justice telling all police to stop transmitting personal information (such as social security and drivers' license numbers) over the airwaves. The state department did not say that all police departments must encrypt but Police Chief Robert Jonsen chose that as one of the two suggested DOJ routes to follow. His other option was to keep on transmitting, but find other ways -- for example, having officers call in with their cell phones any personal information to the dispatch desk.

Such a major change in how the police department relays information to the press and public absolutely needs both the council and public input. Jonsen says this is an internal decision, but it's not. The radio transmissions are how most media outlets find out what is going on, what robberies have just occurred, or what fires or emergencies have happened. This is not about a journalist's need to know, it is about getting police activities out to the public so people will know what is going on in their city.

Yes, I am echoing the editorials in both the Weekly and the Daily Post on this topic, but police transparency is very important to me, and Palo Alto's Police Department is getting much too opaque. Not only did the public information officer slot disappear, but also newspapers are now told to send their questions online to the department and then they will be answered when police find the time to do so. Some local reporters have had to wait a couple of days to get an answer. And what about the follow-up questions journalists ask when talking with the police? Wait another couple of days? Reporters write stories when they happen, not days later.

There was also the move that when there is a conflict be tween two officers, the investigation of what happened should be handled by the city's HR Department, and not an outside police auditor, who has conducted such examinations for years. Once HR gets ahold of it, it becomes a "personnel" matter and seldomly will go public.

There are those who say Jonsen's new rule is a good one, because burglars and criminals may find out from the scanner that, for example, police are on their way to a bank robbery in progress. To them I say that yes, that could happen, but the system has worked fine since the transmissions started in the early 1940s, so we're not talking about a major problem. But keeping news from residents is a major issue.

What the police department did is overkill. In order to protect private information about an individual who may have been arrested, the department decided to get rid of all broadcasting -- not find ways to omit the personal information. It's akin to police saying they've had two accidents on a given road, so therefore all traffic has to be banned -- to protect public safety. Or, because two stores on this block have been robbed twice, the solution is to close the stores.

Mayor Tom DuBois and Vice Mayor Pat Burt met with City Manager Ed Shikada and Jonsen late last week and the council will now discuss the issue -- but in late February. Why wait so long? And will Jonsen's new regulations be enforced until the council discusses the ruling and takes action?

One of the police statements did indicate that in the case of an emergency, the public would be informed. But that sounds to me like the police are deciding what an emergency is. If a policeman shot and killed an unarmed man, is that an emergency -- or an embarrassment to the police? Certainly the police department doesn't want to admit it made a mistake, so maybe they will decide it's not an emergency and doesn't have to be reported. Maybe reporters won't even find out about it.

We should all be concerned about this issue, because it's important for our country that we. the people, keep a public eye on the government, including our local government and its police department.