The Palo Alto Police Department, which moved abruptly in January 2021 to fully encrypt its radio communications, is preparing to reverse the controversial policy, acting Chief Andrew Binder announced Thursday.
Binder, whose permanent appointment to the police chief position is scheduled to take place this Monday, said he plans to make the department's primary dispatch channel unencrypted in the coming weeks. The new policy providing real-time radio access to police communications would take effect no later than Sept. 1, according to Binder.
"The change in operations furthers three critical priorities including safeguarding personal identifying information and officer safety, increasing public awareness of police activities and continuing seamless interaction with our regional law enforcement partners," Binder said in a statement.
The Police Department is one of about 120 law enforcement agencies across the state that had fully encrypted their radio communications as of this spring, ostensibly in response to an October 2020 directive from the state Department of Justice that ordered them to protect personally identifiable information such as driver's license numbers and criminal backgrounds. The Department of Justice gave agencies two options for complying: encrypting communications or adopting policies for protecting personal information while maintaining public access for most other radio transmissions.
Palo Alto, like most other agencies around Santa Clara County, opted to fully encrypt, a policy that former Police Chief Robert Jonsen adopted with no forewarning in January 2021. Several City Council members, most notably Greer Stone, have criticized the move as an affront to transparency. But despite stated concerns, council members voted in April to allow the department to keep communications encrypted.
Jonsen, who is now running for Santa Clara County sheriff, argued at the April 4 meeting that removing encryption would make it more difficult for Palo Alto police to communicate with other agencies that use encrypted communications, including the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office.
"If Palo Alto were to transmit on an unencrypted (channel) and the sheriff required encryption, it sets up a demanding situation for our dispatchers in our communication center," Jonsen said at the April 4 meeting.
Since then, department leaders have found a way to overcome this challenge. Palo Alto's new policy gives officers three options to comply with requirements to secure personal identifying information. They can transmit only a person's driver license number without additional information that would reveal their identity; they can split individual components of personal identifying information into separation transmissions; or they can use cellphones to call the dispatch center and transmit the information, according to a news release the department released Thursday afternoon.
According to the department, the new procedures will not impact the department's ability to communicate with any other local law enforcement agency in the event of a critical incident or other mutual aid response. The policy allows for encrypted communication in the event of tactical operations, sensitive situations that would "reasonably jeopardize public safety or the safety of officers" or during a response that involves multiple agencies where use of encrypted radio is necessary to achieve interoperability, according to the news release.
The new policy will go into effect on or before Sept. 1, once training of department personnel is completed, according to the announcement. The city's largest police union, the Palo Alto Peace Officers' Association, worked with department leaders to develop the policy and union leaders had indicated they are "supportive of transparency," according to the announcement.
The topic of police radio encryption has become increasingly urgent across the state over the past year as more law enforcement agencies have removed public and media access from radio transmissions. A state bill that is currently moving through the Legislature would require all law enforcement agencies to develop alternatives to full encryption by 2024, which may involve giving access to individuals to an online stream of radio communication. Authored by state Sen. Josh Becker, Senate Bill 1000 cleared the state Senate in May and is now in the hands of the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
The Silicon Valley Radio Interoperability Authority (SVRIA), a countywide agency that coordinate emergency communications, also raised concerns in late March about member agencies switching to unencrypted radio, a move that it claimed could compromise its ability to participate in incidents involving mutual aid, according to Executive Director Eric Nickel.
"The lack of cohesion and communication between the unencrypted and encrypted agencies will lead to adverse outcomes, in particular for the agency that is unencrypted and lacks the full functionality of a regional interoperable radio system," wrote Nickel, a former Palo Alto fire chief.
But Thursday's statement from the Police Department suggests that mutual aid will not be an issue given that Palo Alto will still have the ability to use encrypted communication in these incidents. And the SVRIA issued an updated memo in May that suggested that unencrypted channels might not be a problem.
According to the May 18 memo from Nickel, when encrypted and unencrypted radios are on the same talkgroup, all communication becomes unencrypted, which creates an opportunity for personally identifiable information to be inadvertently transmitted. However, the memo, which was obtained by this news organization, also noted that the Department of Justice has no regulatory authority over the SVRIA and so there is a "low level of concern of any adverse impacts" of personally identifiable information being inadvertently transmitted on a shared interoperability talkgroup.
It emphasized that the agency's interoperability features "will remain available to all members no matter their encryption status."
Nickel told this news organization on Thursday that dispatchers can address a situation in which some departments use unencrypted channels by putting all individual radios into an encrypted talkgroup and then patching them into an interoperability talkgroup. He emphasized that his agency does not have a position on encryption and is primarily concerned about the ability of agencies to work together major incidents.
"We exist to provide interoperable communication," Nickel said. "I shared it with all the police chiefs. No matter your encryption status, if you need to talk to the other agencies with interoperability talkgroups — it's going to work whether encrypted or not, and we're going to work with you whether you're encrypted or not."
The group's evolving position helped influence Palo Alto's new policy. Binder noted in a statement that the several variables had contributed to the department's policy change, "including proposed changes to state law and evolving information from the Silicon Valley Radio Interoperability Authority that removed initial barriers to radio communications approaches."
To address concerns about officer safety, the department wanted to give officers various options so that they can choose one that best fits their circumstances, Acting Capt. James Reifschneider told this news organization. For example, if an officer is making an inquiry about a witness or a victim, a cellphone may be a safe and convenient option. But if officers have stopped multiple suspects or are looking for individuals who are armed and dangerous, radios be more suitable because they would allow their colleagues to also hear pertinent information in real time.
He also noted that relying on a cellphone may be problematic in parts of the city with poor cellular service but where radios work well.
"We want to make sure that by giving these options, they can choose the option that best fits the circumstances they are confronting," Reifschneider said.
He noted that the policy would require more work from dispatchers, particularly in cases where they are operating from just the driver's license number. But department leaders believe the policy change can be adopted without hiring additional staff, he said.
The department has been tracking SB 1000 to make sure that its new policy would comply with the language of the bill, should it become law, Reifschneider said. Binder and others in the department were well aware that the City Council has endorsed the bill, which made clear that the new policy is the right approach.
Reifschneider noted that even in January 2021, when the department adopted encryption, it was "never motivated to keep the public from sharing our radio transmissions."
"We did what we believed was the right thing to do based on the guidance that was given to us from DOJ, but this has remained an open topic and we have come up with a workable solution," Reifschneider said.