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About this blog: So much is right — and wrong — about what is happening in Palo Alto. In this blog I want to discuss all that with you. I know many residents care about this town, and I want to explore our collective interests to help ...  (More)

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PA Police: Too drastic a decision on banning police information from public

Uploaded: Jan 10, 2021
The Palo Alto Police Department definitely made a mistake when it abruptly sent an email to local media on Tuesday, Jan. 5, stating that starting immediately the police would encrypt all its radio transmissions. This order was made without any public input and without the mayor or city council knowing about it.

This public ban on the broadcasting of all police activities to newspapers and residents was the result of a new state order from the Department of Justice telling all police to stop transmitting personal information (such as social security and drivers' license numbers) over the airwaves. The state department did not say that all police departments must encrypt but Police Chief Robert Jonsen chose that as one of the two suggested DOJ routes to follow. His other option was to keep on transmitting, but find other ways -- for example, having officers call in with their cell phones any personal information to the dispatch desk.

Such a major change in how the police department relays information to the press and public absolutely needs both the council and public input. Jonsen says this is an internal decision, but it's not. The radio transmissions are how most media outlets find out what is going on, what robberies have just occurred, or what fires or emergencies have happened. This is not about a journalist's need to know, it is about getting police activities out to the public so people will know what is going on in their city.

Yes, I am echoing the editorials in both the Weekly and the Daily Post on this topic, but police transparency is very important to me, and Palo Alto's Police Department is getting much too opaque. Not only did the public information officer slot disappear, but also newspapers are now told to send their questions online to the department and then they will be answered when police find the time to do so. Some local reporters have had to wait a couple of days to get an answer. And what about the follow-up questions journalists ask when talking with the police? Wait another couple of days? Reporters write stories when they happen, not days later.

There was also the move that when there is a conflict be tween two officers, the investigation of what happened should be handled by the city's HR Department, and not an outside police auditor, who has conducted such examinations for years. Once HR gets ahold of it, it becomes a "personnel" matter and seldomly will go public.

There are those who say Jonsen's new rule is a good one, because burglars and criminals may find out from the scanner that, for example, police are on their way to a bank robbery in progress. To them I say that yes, that could happen, but the system has worked fine since the transmissions started in the early 1940s, so we're not talking about a major problem. But keeping news from residents is a major issue.

What the police department did is overkill. In order to protect private information about an individual who may have been arrested, the department decided to get rid of all broadcasting -- not find ways to omit the personal information. It's akin to police saying they've had two accidents on a given road, so therefore all traffic has to be banned -- to protect public safety. Or, because two stores on this block have been robbed twice, the solution is to close the stores.

Mayor Tom DuBois and Vice Mayor Pat Burt met with City Manager Ed Shikada and Jonsen late last week and the council will now discuss the issue -- but in late February. Why wait so long? And will Jonsen's new regulations be enforced until the council discusses the ruling and takes action?

One of the police statements did indicate that in the case of an emergency, the public would be informed. But that sounds to me like the police are deciding what an emergency is. If a policeman shot and killed an unarmed man, is that an emergency -- or an embarrassment to the police? Certainly the police department doesn't want to admit it made a mistake, so maybe they will decide it's not an emergency and doesn't have to be reported. Maybe reporters won't even find out about it.

We should all be concerned about this issue, because it's important for our country that we. the people, keep a public eye on the government, including our local government and its police department.

What is it worth to you?


Posted by hmmm3, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Jan 11, 2021 at 1:05 pm

hmmm3 is a registered user.

I favor the decision to encrypt. The purpose of police communication is to have effective policing, not to inform the public. Keeping a suspect's name off the radio is good policy - an innocent person under investigation might show up in the newspaper. Saying that the police can never use anyone's name over the radio is a tough burden on policing.

However you raise a good point that the police prefer secrecy and would generally not inform anyone of anything they did, and open communications provided some sunshine. Regrettably we might have to cure this regulation with more regulation, and force more and timely open communication from our police force, but protecting a suspect's privacy is of huge benefit. Thus I would prefer to move forward with encryption and find a way to open our police force to real and substantial oversight - a challenge that is front and center this year anyway.

Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jan 11, 2021 at 7:42 pm

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

When we resided in Midtown decades ago, a middle-aged neighbor used to listen to his police scanner on a regular basis as a pastime...kind of like listening to a ballgame. that many people actually spend their time listening to PD radio dispatches?

Posted by jlanders, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jan 12, 2021 at 10:15 am

jlanders is a registered user.

Given the constraints placed on the PAPD by the California DOJ, access for the general public is unlikely to be restored.

However, local news agencies in other areas of the country have been able gain access. The news organizations purchase a radio and have the department program the device as a courtesy to only receive a few dispatch related channels. The local news organizations sign an agreement with their police department on acceptable use of what they hear.

Not sure how good the relationship is between the PAPD and local news agencies these days, but this might be a proposal worth discussing with council.

Posted by marion, a resident of Midtown,
on Jan 12, 2021 at 10:32 am

marion is a registered user.

Thanks for shining light on this subject Diane. I always appreciate, and usually agree with you opinions. It bothers me that such a change in the police department went ahead without public and council input. Perhaps with open minds and hearts a solution could be found that was best for all concerned. Instead, the choice by Jonsen seems geared to protect the police from a reasonable source of outside scrutiny. Waiting till late February seems like just 'putting it off' to me.

Posted by pearl, a resident of another community,
on Jan 12, 2021 at 1:51 pm

pearl is a registered user.

Encryption is for the safety of the police and the consuming public. Bad guys listen to police calls all the time!

Posted by Duveneck neighbor, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Jan 14, 2021 at 1:32 pm

Duveneck neighbor is a registered user.

PAPD has demonstrated it needs more, not less, public oversight; more, not less, transparency.

The well-known incidents involving PAPD officers over the last several years (e.g. the Alvarez incident) provide the evidentiary baseline. Excessive force, illegal entry, failure to use body cameras, failure to file require reports, failure by colleagues to report improper and illegal behavior by officers, victim blaming... all serve to provide factual contradiction to any narrative, that PAPD deserves the trust attendant to non-transparent operations.

Further, subsequent requests to limit the external auditor's ability to provide oversight (a request which was fulfilled in December 2019, then rescinded after the peaceful protest by 12,000 people on June 6, 2020), reliance upon Human Resources law to hide 'bad' behavior, reliance upon limited immunity law, and the 'victim blaming' evident in (for instance) the PAPD and City Attorney statements after the Alvarez legal settlement... all reflect continued behaviors by PAPD which erode public trust, rather than build it.

A free society cannot survive without transparency relative to the behavior of its elected officials, and relative to the staff members hired by its elected officials. How PAPD behaves when the public is NOT looking, is both issue and problem; and, too frequently, PAPD not only demonstrates poor behavior, but subsequently seeks to deflect, dissemble, and rationalize the bad behavior.

State law says, EITHER PAPD may encrypt, OR PAPD may implement policies which forbid transmission of the regulated information. At a minimum, this choice is a matter for Council -- not for arbitrary decision by the Chief.

Should Council determine encryption is the 'best' path forward (and, I hope they will not so choose), then Council must provide mechanisms for oversight by independent, third-party, trusted elements, acting on the public's behalf. Such an element could be a court (a version of a FISA court), amenable to FOIA requests with the oversight of a judge. Or, it could be the outside police auditor, which already exists. Or, it could be a similar entity, constituted by Council.

But one way or another, public scrutiny MUST be allowed. PAPD has NOT demonstrated it is worthy of our complete trust. And, it is not just one 'bad apple' which taints the entire 'barrel' of the department -- because other officers, and the Chief, and the City Manager, and the City Attorney, have all aided and abetted behaviors which protect the system and its membership, yet which do not serve the public interest, and diminish, rather than enhance, public safety.

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