Editorial | April 2, 2021 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - April 2, 2021


Nearing zero transparency

City Council should reverse police department decision to silence its radio communications

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.


Posted by felix
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 2, 2021 at 8:03 am

felix is a registered user.

Thank you for this editorial.
It’s vital that council upholds our First Amendment rights.

Posted by James Miranda
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Apr 2, 2021 at 8:14 am

James Miranda is a registered user.

quoting the Palo Alto Weekly closing statement...

"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."

Given the general biases and untrustworthiness of police reports and accounts, maintaining open airwaves of police operating radio frequencies is critical to ensure
transparency and accountability on the part of law enforcement.

The public has a right to be aware of their everyday presence and activities whether it is a minor traffic stop or an undercover operation because the police always seem to have a way of distorting evidence and probable cause.

Posted by Barron Parker Too
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 2, 2021 at 11:11 am

Barron Parker Too is a registered user.

This is so much nonsense. Each actor here is playing a game.

The "social justice" activists live to convince people that racism
is the foundation of our society, that we are all racists, and the
police are the villains at the center of the rot. Anything that
interferes with the police is "anti-racist" and therefore necessary.

The PA Online editor and ambulance-chasing lawyers want immediate
access to accidents, where they can report on injuries or recruit
the injured.

This should not be an issue. The police understand what is necessary
to do their job, which is to protect the community from criminals.
And to protect the community, it is necessary to encrypt these
communications to prevent criminals from using internal police information.

This is not a question of "transparency," unless by "transparency"
is meant letting the criminals know what the police are doing
IN REAL TIME. The Palo Alto Police Department is entirely correct
that these communications need to be encrypted, for both the
efficiency of their work and the safety of all of us.
Just as the police departments throughout the county, fortunately, are doing.

Posted by Latrelle Williams
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Apr 2, 2021 at 11:32 am

Latrelle Williams is a registered user.

+ unless by "transparency"
is meant letting the criminals know what the police are doing

∆ Yeah right. Like all of 'the criminals' are intently listening on their scanners to ongoing police activities so they can successfully rob banks and steal from bicycle stores.

Talk about paranoia on the part of non-transparency police advocates.

Posted by Consider Your Options.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 2, 2021 at 12:15 pm

Consider Your Options. is a registered user.

Democracy is a government of the people, by the people, for the people. All citizens are responsible for the actions of our government, including police. We, collectively through our elected representatives, give these professionals a lot of authority and weapons to enable law enforcement. Most police, and I have met a number of the department members, are responsible professionals who chose their career to serve the public with good intent. However, there can be bad eggs in any organization of human beings, so transparency is critically important.

It bothers me that this decision was made by Chief Jonsen unilaterally. City Manager Shikada should have questioned this and required him to bring it to Council. Staff overstepped. I'm glad to hear that Chief Jonsen recognizes his mistake and is examining and pulling back from his original position.

Posted by Steve McGarett
a resident of another community
on Apr 2, 2021 at 12:19 pm

Steve McGarett is a registered user.

The public only needs to be informed 'on a need to know' basis.

Lt. Steve McGarrett and Lt. Kojak.

Posted by Robert St. John
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 2, 2021 at 2:17 pm

Robert St. John is a registered user.

<> The public only needs to be informed 'on a need to know' basis.

The PD does not want to disclose even 1/2 the stuff going through the airwaves and on their cell phones (i.e. racist and mysogynistic comments, 'personal' selfies etc.).

Read the news.

Posted by Jennifer
a resident of another community
on Apr 2, 2021 at 4:23 pm

Jennifer is a registered user.

Encryption started after 9/11 -- officer safety. Keep the officers safe, grant access to the media (police scanners in the newsroom has always been important -- time sensitive stories) and block access to criminals and curious eavesdroppers. Unless you need access for professional reasons -- find a new hobby. Let's get physical.

Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 2, 2021 at 8:01 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

A reasonable compromise would be to release the communications 1-2 hours after they are recorded. Such a delay protects current operations while still providing transparency.

Posted by chini
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 2, 2021 at 8:53 pm

chini is a registered user.

>> made the decision to encrypt all police communication frequencies ... to protect personal identifying information about suspects

Maybe this is another example of not using the right technology from the available ones.

As songs can release a "clean" version for radio, live broadcast bleep with a delay, and with so many voice/speech recognition gizmos out there, how about using the available technologies - ask Siri, Alexa, Google whatever - to "clean" the live dispatch - by bleeping/muddling the names following "Mr", "Ms", for example - to meet the privacy laws, and broadcast unecrypted with a 5-10 second delay? I think that would be a balanced approach, protecting suspects' privacies while keeping community informed about their local police activities.

For those speculating on criminals eavesdropping police chatter to commit crimes, it would be good to cite the crimes (not from moves) or percentage of crimes in which that was found to be true. Maybe, policy can trick criminals with fake chatter and nab them!

Posted by jlanders
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 5, 2021 at 12:32 pm

jlanders is a registered user.

Don't blame the PAPD and Chief Jonsen for obvious bad policy from the California DOJ. Encrypting routine radio traffic takes away a valuable public information source that cost police agencies nothing to provide. Many states have more reasonable open record laws that allow posting call information and obtaining police records online. For example, Florida has an "Active Calls" law where agencies make public access visible on the web in real time. Here, for example, is a link to Orlando's police calls for service: Web Link For some reason, the CDOJ thinks this kind of information needs to protected and only visible to a selected few in California.

Public safety monitoring became popular in the late 1960's and early 1970's because of the dramatic rise in crime. At the time, the FCC made "disclosing what you hear" a violation of Section 605 of the 1934 Communications Act. After the Supreme Court put an end to the FCC's attempt at regulating the 1st amendment in Bartnicki vs Vopper in 2001, the dissemination of emergency radio traffic has become an important part of understanding the context of police work in our society. There's no doubt that the content of the radio traffic gives the public better picture of the contemporaneous events that impact our lives. Yet, in the middle of a global pandemic, the worst civil unrest in decades and devastating cuts to public safety budgets, the CDOJ wants to lock away from the public a free source of information that been part of reporting nationally, locally and at the neighborhood level.

The US Supreme Court has found that "First Amendment Auditors" can follow and live stream with their phones our local police departments at work. Numerous federal lawsuits have protected their right of access. Yet, the CDOJ has taken away our rights to find out what's happening when the police are in my own backyard.

Does the CDOJ's policy make any sense? It doesn't make sense to me!

Posted by IN THE NEWS From KNTV
a resident of another community
on Apr 6, 2021 at 8:57 am

IN THE NEWS From KNTV is a registered user.

Full accountability and access to ALL police radio transmissions is CRITICAL to ensure the ACCURATE filing of police reports (including shootings).

Of note... a recent Danville PD shooting
in March of 2021. The officer shows genuine compassion following the killing of an unarmed African American. BLM

Web Link

Posted by Deshaun Wilson
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Apr 6, 2021 at 1:38 pm

Deshaun Wilson is a registered user.

°a recent Danville PD shooting...the killing of an unarmed African American. BLM

This is blatant MURDER by the local PD pure and simple. BLM

Gunned down like a dog.

Posted by marion henley
a resident of another community
on Apr 6, 2021 at 2:18 pm

marion henley is a registered user.

The KTVU footage is very disturbing.

DEFUND or DISARM the police NOW!

Guns are not toys or bullying implements.


Posted by d. nelson
a resident of another community
on Apr 6, 2021 at 2:59 pm

d. nelson is a registered user.

Had this incident not been captured on cellphone by a civilian, who knows what the police account would have reported.

The police need to held accountable for the use of excessive force, abusing probable cause, illegal search and seizure and ongoing violations of citizen civil rights.

Add unwarranted shootings/killings and we have a problematic and perpetual societal problem.

Agree. The police need to be defunded and disarmed. BLM

They are not our friend.

Posted by Paul Jessup
a resident of another community
on Apr 6, 2021 at 6:50 pm

Paul Jessup is a registered user.

The police need to be held accountable for all of their actions.

As citizens, we are not here to serve the police. They exist to serve and protect the public.

When that responsibility and obligation to American citizenry is no longer functional, the police needs to be defunded and stripped of their weaponry.

Shooting to kill is not a reasonable excuse unless the officer's life or that off another citizen is endangered.

Shooting with a taser or stun gun should be the maximum force used.

Most cops are trigger-happy and this concept needs to be terminated.

The KTVU video speaks volumes as there was absolutely no reason to kill suspect point blank.

Did any viewers see the Danville officer's life in eminant danger?

Hardly. And no different than the Oscar Grant incident at the BART station.

Defund the police! BLM

Posted by Jason Whitman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 7, 2021 at 8:21 am

Jason Whitman is a registered user.

>>"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."

The Palo Alto Weekly summed it up best.

With no accountability via information access, the PAPD (and other law enforcement agencies) are free from full disclosure of their actions...some very questionable.

And it is not a pervasive racist issue as local law enforcement will hassle anyone given a cop's subjective perception and interpretation as 'probable cause'.

Many (not all) PD officers are little more than bullies and thugs packing a gun and wearing a badge. They are protected by a very powerful lobbying group funded by the police unions.

Which is why state legislators rarely initiate pro-active measures to reign-in the police departments. Bribery and fear of retribution work wonders.

Personally speaking, I have no use for the PD. I have never called them for anything and am 100% capable of protecting myself...within the current guidelines of the law.

The police on the other hand and as per the KNTV reportage often take the law into their own hands.

Defund/disarm/disable unwarranted police activities. Not needed.

Posted by chini
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 7, 2021 at 8:40 am

chini is a registered user.

The danger of conflating the transparency of police operations to local community with police misconduct assumes that merely not using encrypted radio transmissions would solve police misconduct. That's bunk!

Let's not go overboard. Transparency is important. Fixing misconduct is a separate and important issue that may have its roots in training, hiring, etc. not just encrypted radio transmissions.

Posted by Jason Whitman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 7, 2021 at 8:55 am

Jason Whitman is a registered user.

>>not using encrypted radio transmissions would solve police misconduct. That's bunk!

Transparency via non-encrypted PD transmissions will afford added public awareness and scrutiny of any police misconduct.

Training and vetting have their place but the bad cops who have alluded vetting are already on the police force and need to be held accountable.

Web Link

Posted by Duveneck neighbor
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 8, 2021 at 10:57 pm

Duveneck neighbor is a registered user.

I agree with the editorial.

This City Council, City Manager, City Attorney, City Police Chief, Police Department, Police Union, City Staff, medical examiner, district attorney... that is, our entire system of law enforcement and justice...

1) continues to broaden the use of employment law to hide police activities from public review;
2) continues to pretend the Alvarez incident never happened, and that the actions and behaviors of everyone involved in that incident are normative, and require no change;
3) continues to put increasing limitations on what actions and behaviors are subject to review of the independent outside auditor;
4) continues to use limited immunity law to shield officers;
5) continues to cause we citizens to have to pay large settlements for their illegal and unethical behaviors;
6) continues to believe they are entitled to a system which ensures their uninterrupted employment;
7) continues to mistake their present tactics and technology for 'justice' and 'law enforcement'.

The system is at fault. And we voters are responsible: we have allowed -- through passivity and inaction -- the system to evolve, in our name. Unless and until we voters place representatives on the Council who will actually, truly, represent *our* will, and not the will of the system, we will continue to have no justice, and no peace.

Posted by William Hitchens
a resident of Mountain View
on Apr 9, 2021 at 4:29 pm

William Hitchens is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

Posted by Jason Whitman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 10, 2021 at 7:39 am

Jason Whitman is a registered user.

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

Posted by Richard Calhoun
a resident of another community
on Apr 12, 2021 at 11:24 am

Richard Calhoun is a registered user.

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

Posted by Barry Stein J.D.
a resident of another community
on Apr 12, 2021 at 1:42 pm

Barry Stein J.D. is a registered user.

¶ Watch the video.

Another reason justifying that police departments be defunded and all cops subject to a rehiring process with extreme vetting and review of their past service record.

When a cop is judge, jury, and executioner we no longer have a free society.

And when cops are afforded to use their authority to promote and practice racist, white supremacist, and unconstitutional perspectives we no longer have America.

Most cops are UN-AMERICAN.

Posted by Ruben Marquez
a resident of another community
on Apr 13, 2021 at 12:54 pm

Ruben Marquez is a registered user.

An taser is pretty much all that a police officer needs to be carrying.

Their 9mm service weapons should be eliminated as standard carry or locked-up inside the car alongside their rifles as there is rarely a need for returning fire.

Society is considerably safer when the police are not carrying loaded firearms.

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