News

Becker bill would restore public access to police radio communications

Palo Alto and other law enforcement agencies would have until next year to find alternative to radio encryption

State Senate Bill 1000 seeks to make nonsensitive police radio communications available to the public by Jan. 1, 2023. Embarcadero Media file photo.

Police departments throughout California would be required to make their radio communications accessible to the press and the public under new legislation proposed by state Sen. Josh Becker.

Senate Bill 1000, also known as the "Public Right to Police Radio Communications Act," responds to a recent trend among California's law-enforcement agencies to encrypt their radio communications since early 2021, a move that prevents journalists, citizen watchdogs and other residents from monitoring police activities.

The switch to encrypted radio, which was made by police departments in Palo Alto, Mountain View, San Francisco, Los Altos and other cities, followed a memo from the state Department of Justice that required departments to institute measures to protect release over the radio of personal information such as social security numbers, license plate numbers and criminal histories. The memo gave departments the option of either fully encrypting their communications or establishing policies that protect sensitive information while keeping other communications publicly available.

The California Highway Patrol responded by adopting a "hybrid" approach in which radio transmissions remain open except for when personal information is being transmitted. Most other Bay Area agencies followed Palo Alto's lead and encrypted all their communications.

Becker's bill gives California law enforcement agencies until Jan. 1, 2023 to "ensure that all radio communications are accessible to the public." This could be done by using unencrypted radio frequencies for all nonsensitive information, thus allowing it to be picked up by radio scanning equipment; by streaming radio communication online; or by providing access to encrypted communication to anyone who requests it for a "reasonable fee."

Help sustain the local news you depend on.

Your contribution matters. Become a member today.

Join

Agencies can also transmit confidential information by phone, tablets and other text-display devices, according to the bill.

The legislation would not apply to radio frequencies used to share confidential information or for tactical and undercover operations.

In a fact sheet announcing the bill, Becker called the switch by various law enforcement agencies to switch to encrypted radios a "poor decision."

The issue of police encryption has become contentious in Palo Alto, where several council members, including Mayor Pat Burt, Tom DuBois and Greer Stone, have repeatedly urged the department to reconsider its policy and reverse course, with no success. Stone, who serves on the council's Policy and Services Committee, advocated at the committee's Feb. 8 meeting for the city to revisit the topic and follow California Highway Patrol's lead.

Stone argued that the encryption policy has "the feeling of trying to put up guard between the media and those on the ground."

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox in our Express newsletter.

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox in our Express newsletter.

"I do think there are reasonable concerns that have been raised regarding transparency," Stone said, shortly before the committee supported his motion to reconsider the encryption policy at a future meeting. "If other agencies like CHP can do it, it is curious why we can't do it here."

To date, City Manager Ed Shikada and Police Chief Robert Jonsen have resisted requests to revert to the prior policy or to follow the CHP's lead in removing encryption for radio transmission that does not include confidential information. Assistant Police Chief Andrew Binder suggested, however, that the department had surveyed other jurisdictions and would be willing to further discuss the issue with the council.

"I'd welcome the opportunity to get with the council and show what the Police Department has done and what research has been done and what steps we've taken to communicate and keep our community abreast of what's happening," Binder said at the Feb. 8 meeting.

Police transparency also emerged as a hot topic last week, as the Human Relations Commission hosted a public meeting to discuss the city's search for its next police chief. Commission Vice Chair Adriana Eberle was one of several commissioners and residents who suggested at the March 10 meeting that a candidate's stance on radio encryption should be among the factors that the city considers.

Becker's bill is supported by the California News Publishers Association and the California Broadcasters Association. Both Embarcadero Media, the parent company of The Almanac, and the Daily Post have publicly opposed the Palo Alto Police Department's switch to encrypted radio.

"Palo Alto has kind of been at the tip of the spear on this one, as one of the first departments to move to full encryption," Becker told this news organization in an interview. "Especially with what the country has been going through in the last year or two, now is not the time to reduce access to police activity.

"The public and news media have had access to this information for the past 70 years or so. And I understand the police are looking to protect people's private information, but we think there's a way to do both, as the CHP is doing."

Becker also argued in a Thursday memo that restricting access to police activity is "not an 'operational change' that should be taken without input from the public, the media, or city, county and state elected officials."

"Nuanced approaches like (the CHP's) must be adopted by other police agencies rather than wholesale encryption," the memo states.

Craving a new voice in Peninsula dining?

Sign up for the Peninsula Foodist newsletter.

Sign up now
Gennady Sheyner
 
Gennady Sheyner covers the City Hall beat in Palo Alto as well as regional politics, with a special focus on housing and transportation. Before joining the Palo Alto Weekly/PaloAltoOnline.com in 2008, he covered breaking news and local politics for the Waterbury Republican-American, a daily newspaper in Connecticut. Read more >>

Follow AlmanacNews.com and The Almanac on Twitter @almanacnews, Facebook and on Instagram @almanacnews for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Your support is vital to us continuing to bring you crime news. Become a member today.

Becker bill would restore public access to police radio communications

Palo Alto and other law enforcement agencies would have until next year to find alternative to radio encryption

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Sun, Mar 20, 2022, 9:26 am

Police departments throughout California would be required to make their radio communications accessible to the press and the public under new legislation proposed by state Sen. Josh Becker.

Senate Bill 1000, also known as the "Public Right to Police Radio Communications Act," responds to a recent trend among California's law-enforcement agencies to encrypt their radio communications since early 2021, a move that prevents journalists, citizen watchdogs and other residents from monitoring police activities.

The switch to encrypted radio, which was made by police departments in Palo Alto, Mountain View, San Francisco, Los Altos and other cities, followed a memo from the state Department of Justice that required departments to institute measures to protect release over the radio of personal information such as social security numbers, license plate numbers and criminal histories. The memo gave departments the option of either fully encrypting their communications or establishing policies that protect sensitive information while keeping other communications publicly available.

The California Highway Patrol responded by adopting a "hybrid" approach in which radio transmissions remain open except for when personal information is being transmitted. Most other Bay Area agencies followed Palo Alto's lead and encrypted all their communications.

Becker's bill gives California law enforcement agencies until Jan. 1, 2023 to "ensure that all radio communications are accessible to the public." This could be done by using unencrypted radio frequencies for all nonsensitive information, thus allowing it to be picked up by radio scanning equipment; by streaming radio communication online; or by providing access to encrypted communication to anyone who requests it for a "reasonable fee."

Agencies can also transmit confidential information by phone, tablets and other text-display devices, according to the bill.

The legislation would not apply to radio frequencies used to share confidential information or for tactical and undercover operations.

In a fact sheet announcing the bill, Becker called the switch by various law enforcement agencies to switch to encrypted radios a "poor decision."

The issue of police encryption has become contentious in Palo Alto, where several council members, including Mayor Pat Burt, Tom DuBois and Greer Stone, have repeatedly urged the department to reconsider its policy and reverse course, with no success. Stone, who serves on the council's Policy and Services Committee, advocated at the committee's Feb. 8 meeting for the city to revisit the topic and follow California Highway Patrol's lead.

Stone argued that the encryption policy has "the feeling of trying to put up guard between the media and those on the ground."

"I do think there are reasonable concerns that have been raised regarding transparency," Stone said, shortly before the committee supported his motion to reconsider the encryption policy at a future meeting. "If other agencies like CHP can do it, it is curious why we can't do it here."

To date, City Manager Ed Shikada and Police Chief Robert Jonsen have resisted requests to revert to the prior policy or to follow the CHP's lead in removing encryption for radio transmission that does not include confidential information. Assistant Police Chief Andrew Binder suggested, however, that the department had surveyed other jurisdictions and would be willing to further discuss the issue with the council.

"I'd welcome the opportunity to get with the council and show what the Police Department has done and what research has been done and what steps we've taken to communicate and keep our community abreast of what's happening," Binder said at the Feb. 8 meeting.

Police transparency also emerged as a hot topic last week, as the Human Relations Commission hosted a public meeting to discuss the city's search for its next police chief. Commission Vice Chair Adriana Eberle was one of several commissioners and residents who suggested at the March 10 meeting that a candidate's stance on radio encryption should be among the factors that the city considers.

Becker's bill is supported by the California News Publishers Association and the California Broadcasters Association. Both Embarcadero Media, the parent company of The Almanac, and the Daily Post have publicly opposed the Palo Alto Police Department's switch to encrypted radio.

"Palo Alto has kind of been at the tip of the spear on this one, as one of the first departments to move to full encryption," Becker told this news organization in an interview. "Especially with what the country has been going through in the last year or two, now is not the time to reduce access to police activity.

"The public and news media have had access to this information for the past 70 years or so. And I understand the police are looking to protect people's private information, but we think there's a way to do both, as the CHP is doing."

Becker also argued in a Thursday memo that restricting access to police activity is "not an 'operational change' that should be taken without input from the public, the media, or city, county and state elected officials."

"Nuanced approaches like (the CHP's) must be adopted by other police agencies rather than wholesale encryption," the memo states.

Comments

pearl
Registered user
another community
on Mar 21, 2022 at 5:35 pm
pearl, another community
Registered user
on Mar 21, 2022 at 5:35 pm

I've lived for 80 years without access to police radio communications! The public does not need access to police radio communications. That's a good way to get a cop killed!!!


Enough
Registered user
Menlo Park: other
on Mar 22, 2022 at 9:18 am
Enough, Menlo Park: other
Registered user
on Mar 22, 2022 at 9:18 am

"That's a good way to get a cop killed!!!"

Please explain how this is a good way to get a cop killed? I doubt you can because it isn't. Up until last year anyone with a scanner could listen to communications from the Police, Fire, EMS and other agencies along with other communications that are not encrypted. This includes talk between planes and air traffic control as well as many other organizations both public and private. It is a good way to know what is going in in your area, especially when you hear gunfire or emergency vehicles with their sirens on. The concern, and why I believe Palo Alto encrypted their communications, is that some personal information is transmitted, like the names of people being cited. Other agencies have found a way to handle that while keeping their communications open to the public so other cities and agencies can do the same. The last thing we the public needs is less transparency from our Police and other public agencies.


Chuck Bernstein
Registered user
Menlo Park: The Willows
on Mar 28, 2022 at 12:50 pm
Chuck Bernstein, Menlo Park: The Willows
Registered user
on Mar 28, 2022 at 12:50 pm

As a board member of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, I must preface my comments by saying that I am not speaking for the District or the board. However, as a resident Menlo Park, I want to concur with the comments by "Enough." Most people (including, in all likelihood, police officers as well) do not understand that fire and emergency medical services cannot receive encrypted police communications either. That means that those groups are unable to communicate directly with police, whether it is a mass casualty event or an injured officer needing assistance.

Privacy concerns are important on fire and EMS calls, too. However, those agencies have not been trying to build a wall around themselves to limit oversight as some police agencies have been doing. Encryption was an ill-conceived, rash response.

--Chuck Bernstein
444 Oak Court, Menlo Park


Joe
Registered user
another community
on Mar 28, 2022 at 3:30 pm
Joe, another community
Registered user
on Mar 28, 2022 at 3:30 pm

Chuck,

I believe the ICS (Incident Command System) model has cooperating agencies at an event using a separate shared talkgroup that's available either encrypted or in the clear for Unified Command communications that's separate from an operational or tactical talk police groups. At least that's the way it worked when we participated in drills with Santa Clara County.

In Santa Clara county, the change to encrypted police communications is driven by the CA DOJ PII mandate. Departments having the capability to encrypt, must encrypt PII (personally identifiable information). All police departments in Santa Clara County have access to the new digital radio system with encryption, so Santa Clara County police agencies needed to comply with the CA DOJ mandate before the end of last year.

Dave Price at the Post seemed to think that the "CHP model" for PII would work for Santa Clara County. But, because the CHP uses a VHF low band radio system, encryption isn't technically feasible without significant, expensive changes. CHP's primary mission is traffic enforcement and officers are vehicle based, so a hybrid of radio/mobile computer works for them. But, there's no other option for the CHP with PII, so the CA DOJ has to sign off on their model. That's not the case for police departments in Santa Clara County.

Agree that the loss of information is not good and hope that Becker is able to restore some access. This is really the kind of thing that needs to be done at the state level, rather than blaming individuals in municipal governments or local public safety departments. It's hard enough to recruit folks as ESV's (emergency service volunteers) or CERT (community emergency response teams). How can you ask folks to come out and help their neighbors when they have no clear picture of what's happening?


Peter Carpenter
Registered user
Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Mar 29, 2022 at 1:10 pm
Peter Carpenter, Menlo Park: Park Forest
Registered user
on Mar 29, 2022 at 1:10 pm

We have a nice natural experiment here - some agencies have had encryption in place for months. Was there any change in those agencies performance i.e. did they catch more criminals while being encrypted? If not, then why encrypt?


gtspencer
Registered user
Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Apr 1, 2022 at 6:39 pm
gtspencer, Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
Registered user
on Apr 1, 2022 at 6:39 pm

“Enough”

The world is a much different place than it was a few years ago. The ability for law enforcement to have encryption is valid. Comparing law enforcement radio traffic to fire, ems, or airline traffic shows your lack of knowledge on the subject.


Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.

Post a comment

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.