In the late 1800s, when police began using vehicles in the United States, officers had no radios and could only be reached using special red lights located near major intersections or on tall buildings. When the officers saw the red light, activated from the police station, they would use a police phone box on the street or find a nearby telephone to call in for instructions.
One-way radios, which enabled officers on patrol to receive dispatches from headquarters, but not transmit a response, were first introduced almost a century ago in Detroit. San Francisco, Berkeley and Pasadena quickly followed suit.
Then in a major advancement, in 1933 the Bayonne, New Jersey, police became the first department to use two-way radios. Within a few years, cities all over the country adopted the new technology.
Since radio transmissions were over the public airwaves and open to anyone with a receiver to listen in, hobbyists, curious members of the public and the news media began following police activity going on in their city. It became an essential reporting tool for journalists. Without it, the public would only know what the police chooses to tell them in press releases.
Today, the ability to monitor police dispatch communications with officers is the only way for the media and public to have any independent visibility into police activity as it is happening, unless one stumbles upon it. Police scanners have been monitored by virtually every local news organization and allow editors to keep one ear out for what is going on in the community.
When a major incident occurs, it is immediately obvious because of the increase in radio traffic, enabling reporters and photographers to cover it when appropriate. Without this monitoring, the media have no ability to inform the public, quell rumors or observe police practices and conduct in real time.
In Palo Alto, this all came to an abrupt end on Jan. 5, when Police Chief Robert Jonsen unilaterally made the decision to encrypt all police communication frequencies due to his belief at the time, he says, that he was required to do so by the state Department of Justice in order to protect personal identifying information about suspects, such as drivers' license numbers, from being overheard. Encrypting makes the radio traffic understandable only by specially equipped police radios. For everyone else, the police frequencies are now silent.
Other police departments in the area are now following Palo Alto. In spite of a national call for more transparency into police behavior, our law enforcement leaders are doing exactly the opposite.
Three years ago, as scattered police departments around the state began encryption, law enforcement lobbying groups killed a bill in the legislature to require police to provide the media with access to radio transmissions when departments implement encryption measures, similar to the right journalists have to cross police lines as long as it does not interfere with the police activity.
On Monday, the Palo Alto City Council will hear a report on police operations from Chief Jonsen that will provide elected officials the chance to question this policy and reverse his January action. The directive from the state Department of Justice did not require encryption, only that departments adopt a way to prevent personal identifying information regarding suspects from being heard by the public.
There are at least three options short of blocking all communications that will achieve the required privacy protections: implementing encryption only on the non-dispatch frequencies, keeping the primary dispatch frequency un-encrypted; issue an encrypted radio receiver to news organizations that meet certain reasonable requirements; or implement a real-time automated dispatch log/alert system similar to that used by the fire department, providing a live feed of all calls for service, their status and the dispatched units.
In early March Jonsen took a step in the right direction when he asked the state Department of Justice if Palo Alto could temporarily revert back to unencrypted communication while it looked at other options. Most other police agencies plan on taking months before implementing a solution, and Palo Alto should do the same.
The City Council should direct Chief Jonsen and City Manager Ed Shikada to return with a plan that does not take away the only means of monitoring police activity in the city.
No other city department operates with as little transparency as the police. At a time when the need for public scrutiny of police conduct has never been greater, we can't afford to make that transparency worse.