Radio Encryption Change Provides Real-Time Access to Police Actions

Published on August 04, 2022

Palo Alto, CA After a comprehensive analysis of options, the Palo Alto Police Department is planning a forthcoming change to radio communications by September 1 that will provide real-time access to police radio transmissions while safeguarding personal identifying information and officer safety.

“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,” said Acting Chief Andrew Binder of the Palo Alto Police Department.  “Several variables contributed to this 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.”

This change provides the public with open access to police radio communications and enhances officer options in securing personal identifying information.  The new procedures increase field personnel flexibility by providing three different options they can use to safeguard personal identifying information depending on the situation with which they are presented. Those options are a radio check that transmits only a person’s driver license number, a radio check that splits individual components of personal identifying information into separate transmissions, or a cell phone call to our 24-hour dispatch center.

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, as the policy outlines reserving encrypted radio communications in the event of tactical operations or other sensitive situations that would reasonably jeopardize public safety or the safety of officers, or during a response involving multiple agencies where use of an encrypted radio is necessary to achieve interoperable communications.

Starting in early 2021, the Palo Alto Police Department joined multiple other Santa Clara County law enforcement agencies in encrypting their radio transmissions following a Department of Justice directive to safeguard personal identifying information.  In response to community interest in following police activity, the Department developed an innovative calls for service interactive map on the City’s website and increased its responsiveness to media inquiries.  Since that time, the Department has continued to explore alternatives to providing access to police radio communications while safeguarding personal identifying information and officer safety.  Department leadership worked in close collaboration with employee labor groups to develop the new procedures, and the Palo Alto Peace Officers’ Association said they were supportive of transparency.

The new policy restoring real-time access to radio communications will go into effect on or before September 1, 2022, once training of all personnel and other operational steps are completed.

The change in radio communications approach gives the public and media instant access to police activities, while the Department’s existing public information options remain in place.  Those include the interactive calls for service map, the daily Police Report Log, sharing data and policing statistics information as part of the Police Data Initiative, regularly distributing news releases on significant events, providing media access seven days a week to direct information from police leadership, and sharing critical public safety information in a timely way via Nextdoor, Twitter, and Nixle.

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