The Palo Alto City Council pushed back Monday against the Police Department's abrupt move in January to encrypt all police radio communications, with several members suggesting that the policy should be promptly revised or reversed.
The topic of radio encryption was at the center of Monday's wide-ranging discussion of police policies and crime trends. While the council didn't take any votes, most members agreed that the department's switch to encryption, which went into effect on Jan. 6, was the wrong move for a city that has repeatedly pledged to bring more transparency to policing and that has been the subject of numerous high-profile allegations of excessive force over the past three years. While police characterized the move as an attempt to comply with a new privacy mandate from the state, the council suggested that the city should explore other alternatives to protect sensitive information.
In explaining the decision to encrypt, Police Chief Robert Jonsen cited the October directive from the state Department of Justice, which requires agencies to protect personally identifiable information by either encrypting radio communications or establishing a policy to "restrict dissemination of specific information." The Police Department opted to go with the quicker and easier option — encrypting all radio communications.
Jonsen cautioned Monday that any reversal of course would require "careful vetting" and extensive discussion with other agencies to ensure that the department doesn't lose its ability to efficiently communicate with other regional partners. He also underscored the importance of complying with the federal mandate.
"We will continue to look for available options, but it's also important to note that it would probably be imprudent and irresponsible to commit to any alternative solution until we can be assured that it protects the privacy information that the mandate requires," Jonsen said.
Numerous residents spoke out Monday against the new encryption policy, which eliminates the ability of news organizations to monitor police activity (as such, the policy has been opposed by the Palo Alto Weekly, Palo Alto Daily Post and Mercury News). Rita Vrhel said she could not believe that the city chose to encrypt its communications at a time when residents are clamoring for reforms.
"I don't want to 'defund' the police but I do want to hold them accountable," Vrhel said. "When something like this encryption happens overnight without any public knowledge it really does make ordinary citizens like me wonder, ‘Who is in charge of Palo Alto?'''
Aram James, a frequent critic of the Police Department, suggested that the way in which the department adopted the encryption policy undermines its stated commitment to transparency.
"What transparency looks like is not encrypting first and then we have to discover it later to have the hearing," James said. "It's the reverse — you bring to the attention of the citizens and the press, 'Hey, we're thinking about encrypting. Let's have a hearing.'"
The council, which had never discussed the policy prior to the Monday meeting, agreed that it should get more involved. Council member Greer Stone proposed scheduling a formal meeting on the encryption policy, which would allow members to reconsider it. Mayor Tom DuBois agreed.
"I think we should reverse the decision immediately and wait until the year ends and hopefully come up with an alternative before them," Mayor Tom DuBois said.
Stone argued that the encryption policy impedes the First Amendment right of the press to perform its job and serve as a check on the government.
"I understand it's difficult to develop and implement a new policy but the First Amendment states the floor that we can't constitutionally fall below," Stone said. "And we're not meeting that standard there.
"It doesn't matter that it's hard. Most things worth doing are. But we really need to identify alternatives to this blanket encryption and at a minimum allow for the press to monitor police radio."
Jonsen said the city has been exploring additional options, including the use of the app PulsePoint to keep an online log of police incidents. Currently, however, the app is generally used by fire departments and paramedics — not police agencies. Jonsen said the department has had discussions with PulsePoint about integrating law enforcement. That conversation, Jonsen said, will continue.
"I'm really just hopeful that we'll be able to find the technology that will allow us to meet the needs of both the community and the DOJ mandate," Jonsen said.
DuBois, however, suggested that PulsePoint would be insufficient for monitoring the department.
"Just having a flood of generic text messages might not be useful," he said.
Council members also agreed that they should reach out to other cities — and to its lobbyists in Sacramento — to discuss a legislative fix. One alternative that former Assembly member Todd Gloria proposed in 2019 would have required police agencies to provide licenses to news organizations to listen to encrypted broadcasts. That legislation, known as AB 1555, failed to advance in Sacramento.
Vice Mayor Pat Burt and council member Lydia Kou both supported forming an alliance with other cities to explore other alternatives to encryption. Kou serves as an alternate on the board of directors of the Silicon Valley Regional Interoperability Authority, which coordinates emergency communications between the various agencies across Santa Clara County. She recommended writing a letter to other directors. Council member Eric Filseth supported the idea.
"We seem to be in the era of state mandates. This is one that doesn't seem to solve any particular problem we have in our community," Filseth said of the encryption mandate. "I'm encouraged that we're collaborating with other cities to see if we can find a way around this, because this isn't something we need here."