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Palo Alto opts to keep police radios encrypted

Original post made on Apr 5, 2022

Facing resistance from the Palo Alto Police Department, the Palo Alto City Council reluctantly agreed on Monday to keep police radio communication encrypted and inaccessible to the media and the public.


Read the full story here Web Link posted Tuesday, April 5, 2022, 2:01 AM

Comments (27)

Posted by felix
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 5, 2022 at 8:30 am

felix is a registered user.

Council Member Stone was the only one who got it right by supporting de-encryption The rest of the Council got played by the PAPD and police union, buying into a 2.0 version of the lame police map that both Price and Johnson said that even if improved, is inadequte to solve encrption issues. 6 Council Members chose to ignore them and the public interest.

Dir. Nickel's letter was PAPD's "April Surprise", given he could have spoken up long ago, such as when the City asked the DOJ if the City could un-encrypt. He may have inflated his concerns as a new form of “mutual aid” to the PAPD.

We learned that the police union overrides City Council's decisions at will. That's big news and seriously frightening in a democracy. Is this legal? Did Council Members know this was going on? It should stop now, but I doubt it will. The City Attorney and Council will likely look the other way and the Police Union will continue to dominate behind the scenes.

We better hope Senator Becker's Bill succeeds and should all support it as is, but it may not - the police Unions will be opposing it big time with big money.

The only good news is Chief Jonsen is leaving. The only bad news is what we are left with.


Posted by Local Resident
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 5, 2022 at 8:52 am

Local Resident is a registered user.

Thank you Council Member Greer Stone for attempting to protect our First Amendment rights and keep unencrypted police communication! Council Member Burt precisely identified that it was the Police Union restricting real-time reporting. Unfortunately, he then watered down his amendment to be "near real-time" instead of "as close to real-time as technically feasible". We should not let the police union supported by the city manager have a say in how much of our first amendment rights we get to keep.


Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 5, 2022 at 9:41 am

Online Name is a registered user.

Echoing Felix's point about the lameness of the new police tool. When I tried it out I knew a friend's car had been vandalized, looked up her address and was surprised to see her area was covered with crime balloons but when you went to expand one balloon, the address disappeared making the whole thing useless on a granular level.

I wonder how many CC members have actually used it.

High praise to Mr. Price and Mr. Johnson and whoever invited them to speak. I can't believe the CC ignored the safety issues of encryption that Mr. Price captured so well: Say a storm knocks out power during a storm and the wires are hissing in the street. Shouldn't we be warned immediately of that danger??

Of course, just as we should be warned about what's happening in our neighborhoods and what those 6 cop cars with flashing lights when it's happening!

Good for Mr Stone and shame on the others, esp. Mr. Shikada who's let PAPD get away with so much and cost the city so much.


Posted by jlanders
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 5, 2022 at 10:40 am

jlanders is a registered user.

Ultimately, and wisely, the council made the right decision. Chief Jonsen, council and staff did a terrific job with a complex technical and legal topic. Great to see the media invited and happy they were allowed to make their pitch and provide their perspective.

After everyone had the opportunity to speak, council concluded that the model for information dissemination from the PAPD should more closely follow the CHP's publicly available CAD model (https://cad.chp.ca.gov) with near real-time updates available online rather than CHP's radio model that hides personal information over dispatch channels. Those old enough to remember know that CHP's online traffic reporting democratized traffic and accident reporting on California's highways and freeways and gave the information directly to the public rather than private, profit motivated news services.

While the Post and Weekly are no doubt disappointed, spending limited public safety dollars on restoring PAPD's traffic and investigations teams is much more important than spending money broadcasting radio calls for the local press. Now's the time to take advantage of the technology available in PAPD's new CAD and digital radio system. Council and our public safety departments should use this and the capabilities of our new public safety building to improve the operational efficiency of our dispatch operations, while saving money and keeping the public informed.


Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 5, 2022 at 11:39 am

Online Name is a registered user.

It's not just a matter of a free press; it's a matter of public safety. The public should be advised to what areas to avoid, what's happening on their blocks, etc.

I still want to know why the street across from me was blocked off for hours in the late evening by several police cars with flashing lights right in front of my house and another several blocks down. You could see lights coming on in houses for blocks wondering what was happening. Was the president visiting? Martians?

I think we have way too little transparency in our government which allows the city to waste lots of money on their pet issues -- like keeping violent cops on staff while WE pay out lots of money in lawsuits, like hiring a senior CPAU staffer to lobby US to continue the practice of stealing from us via illegal overcharges when they could/should be working on a CLEAN business tax, like their Casti nonsense, like the "medical/retail" Town & Country fiasco.

I went to bed last night feeling really good about last night's CC meeting where Price, Johnson and so many articulate residents spoke and finally dealt with substantive issues.

Silly me. Lots of disappointed emails circulating this morning.


Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 5, 2022 at 12:36 pm

Annette is a registered user.

@jlanders: so what if de-encryption is technically and legally complicated? Technical difficultes are surmountable. If Roseville can do it, so can the birthplace of Silicon Valley. As for legal complications, sometimes we need to get out of our own way. Our nation has been turned upside down and inside out b/c of issues that have roots in the lack of transparency and the strength of police unions. I think PACC missed an opportunity last night.

Thank you to Greer Stone for his lone vote. That he teaches history is proving to be a major asset to this community.

Thanks, too, to editors Price and Johnson. If they are disappointed, they are in good company. Ditto if they are worried.

Note to Johnson: had you reinstated the LIKE button you would see that many of your readers are aligned with you and Dave Price on this issue. Bring it back!


Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 5, 2022 at 12:57 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

A reliable local newspaper with timely news about crime is essential in times of rumor and perceived danger. As written in the article, when parents got texts from their students at school with news of problems, parents need to have a source of finding out what is going on from a reliable source, oftentimes ahead of what the school sends out which can be delayed due to having to act defensively themselves.

Without a reliable source of information, the public turns to Nextdoor, that source of reliable rumor mongering also known as eye witness accounts.

Should we be reduced to social media to get our information? Or do we wait for a Press Release which may or may not come for 48 hours?


Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 5, 2022 at 1:06 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Echoing ALL of Annette's excellent points.

Also note that not only has Roseville managed to do what PAPD claims is hard/impossible but so has nearby Menlo Park whose system Dave Price invited the City Council to check out before voting.

The same myopia about Menlo Park's system extends to how neighboring cities have managed to revitalize their economies and downtowns while PA continues to plead poverty because it's "easier" to retain more high-priced consultants to conduct questionable polls, studies, write reports etc. than to act.


Posted by Barron Parker Too
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 5, 2022 at 1:43 pm

Barron Parker Too is a registered user.

Reporter Sheyner again editorializes, saying that the City Council *reluctantly* agreed with the police that police communications should be encrypted. Reluctantly? "Reluctantly" means that they would have preferred not to do it, but were forced by other exigencies.

That simply isn't true. All members of the City Council except for Stone judged that the best policy going forward, for many positive reasons, was to follow the advice of the police that their communications, like those of other Bay Area police departments, remain encrypted.

For an accurate summary of the City Council decision and the reasons for it, see the comments of @jlanders above.


Posted by AnnetteG
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 5, 2022 at 2:02 pm

AnnetteG is a registered user.

Kudos to CM Stone. I am not in favor of the suggested online map. This is a Rube Goldberg solution, and the city is not capable of updating any site in a timely manner.


Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 5, 2022 at 3:42 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

" This is a Rube Goldberg solution, and the city is not capable of updating any site in a timely manner."

Emphasis om ANY.

Current complaints abound re the inability of the city's contractor paid to manage and/or update the Residential Permits system working and the city's inability to manage them.

See also the highly problematic power outage updates, their much-heralded "green" traffic alerts/maps of construction work to help us save time, avoid backups and cut pollution -- that one had 3 beta tests before it vanished -- , the costly Solar Permitting program where its long failure wasn't even noticed by "management" until the PAW expose' and which cost residents and contractors big bucks, ...

I don't want to hear about how the city can't afford to fix the PAPD system when it's wasting BIG BUCKS on the Fiber Optics System when PA provides such stellar and cost-effective services.


Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 5, 2022 at 3:50 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

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?

Over the years I have counseled a lot of young people considering public safety careers.

In general (but not always) those wanting to be in control become police officers and those wishing to take care of others become firefighters.

That selection bias shapes the culture of both police departments and fire departments.

I have never seen a firefighter or fire department that was not PROUD of the public display of their fire calls.

Web Link

Allowing the police to strengthen their culture of control and secrecy is a dangerous and unnecessary step.


Posted by White Senior fears Palo Alto Police
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 5, 2022 at 5:00 pm

White Senior fears Palo Alto Police is a registered user.

Encryption helps police cover up their crimes and misdemeanors. Taxpayers continue to fund payments to mistreated citizens.


Posted by jlanders
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 5, 2022 at 7:46 pm

jlanders is a registered user.

Annette, you can listen to Roseville PD online. To me, it sounds like that department uses a separate "records channel" to handle personal information requests from officers. Chief Jonsen and the staff report provided to council explained why they didn't think this was a safe option for PAPD. Keep in mind that Roseville's radio system is exclusive to Roseville. They don't have a joint powers authority with other agencies and don't have other police departments dispatching on their radio system. Their records channel is fully encrypted and they're not using the "CHP model" for protecting personal data on an unencrypted channel. This setup works for Roseville. But, unfortunately, it's no template for PAPD and the Santa Clara County radio system.

The question that Dave Price and Bill Johnston were unable to answer last night was simple. Suppose PAPD wanted to move to the "CHP model" of protecting personal information. Where would PAPD broadcast police radio traffic? Palo Alto's police, file and utilities departments use Santa Clara County's radio system. But, Palo Alto is a distant 4th in radio users and financial support under the SVRIA joint powers authority. San Jose, Santa Clara County government and the VTA are multiple times bigger. Without support from the SVRIA’s other members, administration and Director Nickel, an open PAPD dispatch channel doesn't seem possible. So, where does PAPD broadcast, and how do they maintain operational interoperability with Los Altos and Mountain View where they share CAD and confidential records data?

Agree with you and others about transparency. So did Chief Jonsen, and others at last night's meeting. Let's work on improving PAPD's online portal. According to Palo Alto's IT Department, it's only a few weeks worth of effort. If you've got a better, workable plan let's hear it!


Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 5, 2022 at 8:54 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

We have had decades of open police radio transmissions.

Please document how anyone has been harmed by that.

Allowing the police to operate in secret means that we will have a secret police - is that what the citizens want?


Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 5, 2022 at 8:55 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

@jlanders, correct me if I'm wrong but weren't we able to view PAPD traffic online, too? I remember having a browser tab linking to PAPD reports when there was extraordinary police activity / sirens etc. I don't remember audio reports but vaguely remember the reports were on Twitter but I could be wrong on that.


Posted by Duveneck neighbor
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 7, 2022 at 10:41 pm

Duveneck neighbor is a registered user.

Disagree vehemently with the Council vote.

You all are not getting it. We the voters want transparency in policing. We want an end to encrypted communications. We want an end to bad behaviors hidden by Human Resources obfuscation, and hidden by college-fraternity-like, circle-the-wagons obfuscation by the Police Union. We want an end to our tax dollars being used to pay off plaintiffs who have been harmed through the bad behaviors of individual officers, aided and abetted by the code of silence and non-transparent obfuscations from the City Manager, City Attorney, Chief of Police, and Police Union.

We want an end to the status quo.

We can have quality police and policing, AND safety for our officers who are sworn to serve and protect us -- and who actually put the public first, rather than last.

But, we can't have all that, if Council will continue to do the wrong thing.

This issue is my highest priority. All six who voted in favor of encryption, will no longer get my vote.


Posted by ALB
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 9, 2022 at 1:30 pm

ALB is a registered user.

Sadly the majority of the CC caved and did not support freedom of the press, transparency and safety. Only CC member Greer Stone saw through the self-centered pitch by Chief Jonsen who desperately sought a political win as he is running for sheriff for Santa Clara County. He needs the backing of the police unions. Shikada placed the item late on the agenda. This tedious presentation by both the CP and CM successfully trammeled the CC. This CC did not integrate the excellent presentations by publishers Bill Johnson and Dave Price. Many in the community
are beyond nonplussed we are shocked at this decision. Encryption does not protect the residents. It only benefits police unions who certainly do not embrace transparency.


Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 9, 2022 at 1:51 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

The SJ Mercury just endorsed Chief Jonsen for county sheriff. I urged them to do thair homework and check out the comments by the publishers of PA Online and the PA Daily Post and PA residents.


Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 9, 2022 at 8:49 pm

Annette is a registered user.

@Online Name - that is disturbing news about the endorsement. How can a paper be bamboozled like that and endorse a candidate who promotes encryption over transparency?


Posted by William Hitchens
a resident of Mountain View
on Apr 24, 2022 at 2:29 pm

William Hitchens is a registered user.

I can't possibly see how encryption has anything to do with "1st Amendment Rights"!!! I don't have a 1st Amendment right to snoop on YOUR conversation if I don't want you to unless I say it's OK or a court says it's OK.

Police radio is encrypted so crooks (like drug dealers or car thieves) can't benefit from knowing what police are concentrating on and where the police are (and especially are not). Open channel police band scanners used to be illegal, but I don't know if they are anymore. Anyway, you can buy them very easily. It also was illegal to prevent unscrupulous towing services and ambulance chasing lawyers to get to accident scenes first to profit from other people's misery.


Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 24, 2022 at 3:22 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

" I don't have a 1st Amendment right to snoop on YOUR conversation if I don't want you to unless I say it's OK or a court says it's OK."

The difference is that police conversations are not conversations between private individual but conversations by people who work for the public and who should be accountable to the public who pays them and who trusts them to protect our communities.


Posted by William Hitchens
a resident of Mountain View
on Apr 25, 2022 at 5:39 pm

William Hitchens is a registered user.

You miss my point. Just what the heck does "protecting 1st Amendment rights" have to do with police encryption? It's their speech, not yours!!! Huh? If you encrypt your speech, can the police spy on you too? This is a double-sided sword.. Find some other legal reason. There are lots of other legal reasons for people who understand The Law. Shee. Why do I waste my time on people like you? Ta ta!


Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 25, 2022 at 5:45 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

The difference is that police conversations are not conversations between private individual but conversations by people who work for the public and who should be accountable to the public who pays them and who trusts them to protect our communities.


Posted by Avery Stone
a resident of another community
on Apr 26, 2022 at 8:57 am

Avery Stone is a registered user.

A compromise to this issue might be in order.

How about maintaining non-encrypted general police communications for public access while maintaining a private encrypted channel for sensitive police matters involving active criminal pursuits and investigations?


Posted by staying home
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 26, 2022 at 10:32 am

staying home is a registered user.

First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

I fail to see how the police encrypting their comm's is a first amendment issue. The problem is visibility and accountability. Listening in on police radio was never intended to be a method of allowing the public to keep informed. If the technology existed 50 years ago, you better believe the police would have been encrypting all along.

Other cities have granted encryption licenses to press, it seems like it could work here as well.




Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 26, 2022 at 10:36 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"I fail to see how the police encrypting their comm's is a first amendment issue."

Police encryption is not a First Amendment Issue but rather a public accountability issue.

Our police do not have any constitutional right to privacy in their communications - they are a public entity and serve the public.


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