By a 6-1 council vote, transparency in the police department has dangerously diminished. And this time the chief has the council’s blessing to keep things in the department absolutely secret. What is released to the public is his decision to make.
The almost unanimous vote took away the ability of the media and other members of the public to monitor daily police activities through scanners.
That’s baffling behavior for a town like ours, where constitutional rights like the public’s right to know about government activities and First Amendments rights were important for years.
One would have thought that council members would be more concerned with getting police activity information to its 65,000 residents than deciding that the chief can keep on encrypting, a new rule he made and enforced 13 months ago, without council approval.
The council apparently made their decision because Chief Robert Jonsen told them he needed encryption. His apparent reason: our police can better communicate and coordinate with neighboring police departments who also use encryption. Never mind that Palo Alto police for the past several months is interacting with both Menlo Park and East Palo Alto, which remain unencrypted
Several things deeply disturb me about the council’s discussion with the chief:
• The council is disregarding what’s best for residents.
• Jonsen and others acknowledged the unions played a much bigger role in setting up rules for encryption and other policies. Such a department liaison with this powerful police union was something most of us, including me, were not aware of. The public has no say in how the union and the department work together, because we don’t elect union members or the police chief. We only elect council members.
•The council majority suggested reliance on a new police report online map which shows circled areas where there was police activity. The council indicated this would serve the public almost as well as radio transmissions in alerting people to the trouble spots in town.
Nonsense. The map does not pinpoint a specific locale, just an area, nor does it transcribe what kind of incident occurred – a murder, a break-in, an arrest, a kidnapping, a big accident. It also is not immediate – it takes time for an incident to get on the map. It’s useless – because what happened when is significantly more important than where it happened.
• Before the meeting, three council members – Mayor Pat Burt, and councilmen Tom DuBois and Greer Stone were leaning toward getting rid of encryption, Burt and DuBois changed their minds – they seemed to kowtow to the police chief. Only Greer Stone stood up for the First Amendment and ending encryption.
• Several times during the meeting, the chief said police were worried about safety issues if their location was disclosed. Just what the safety issues are was not addressed, and I can’t understand how going into a building is more of a safety hazard than stopping a speeder in the middle of night in a dark part of town.
• While the publishers of both the Palo Alto Weekly, Bill Johnson, and the Palo Alto Daily Post, Dave Price, addressed the council at the meeting, the council discussion that followed didn’t focus much on taking away the ability of the media and other members of the public to monitor police activities through scanners.
•Nor did the council focus much on the potential safety of residents who can’t find out about a fire or a flooded street or downed electrical wires in town. Sadly, the entire discussion focused much more on the police than it did on the residents in town.
The result: the council decided it will rely on new (unnamed) technologies to solve this problem of letting the public know what the police are doing. The other hope was a new bill, SB 1000, authored by state Sen. Josh Becker (D-Menlo Park) which, if adopted, would keep radio transmissions open but also protect some private information. It’s a good law – but will it be adopted?
Not if police unions have their way.