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State Sen. Josh Becker revives effort to address police radio encryption

Senate Bill 719 would require law enforcement to restore media's real-time access to police communication
Josh Becker
State Sen. Josh Becker, D-Menlo Park, speaks during a news conference at Barron Park Elementary in Palo Alto on March 2, 2021.

After falling just short in the final days of last year's legislative session, Sen. Josh Becker is renewing his push for a law that would require law enforcement agencies to make radio communications accessible to the media.

Becker, D-San Mateo, has recently introduced Senate Bill 719, a bill that would require all police departments to grant access to real-time radio communications to media representatives or organizations. The bill, which he calls the Law Enforcement Communications Transparency Act, is similar in its intent to last year's Senate Bill 1000, which faltered last August when the powerful Assembly Appropriations Committee opted not to advance it for a full Assembly vote.

There are, however, some differences between the two bills. While last year's proposal would have required law enforcement agencies to grant access to the broader public, the current one would ensure access for "duly authorized media representatives or organizations." If SB 719 passes, police departments would have 30 days to comply with a media request for access to real-life radio communications.

The bill is a response to a recent trend across California of police and sheriff departments encrypting radio communications, a move that blocks news organizations from using scanners to track police activities. Many of these agencies, including Palo Alto and Mountain View, were responding to an October 2020 directive from the state Department of Justice, requiring them to enact procedures that protect sensitive personal information such as an individual's Social Security number and criminal history from being broadcast over publicly accessible frequencies. The state DOJ allowed departments to either encrypt communications or adopt policies that protect personal information.

News organizations, including Embarcadero Media, had opposed law enforcement's switch to encryption, arguing that it reduces transparency and impedes their ability to provide information to the public during emergencies. Numerous law enforcement agencies opposed the bill and claimed that undoing their recent efforts to encrypt radio communications would be costly. A spokesperson for the Riverside County Sheriff's Office told an Assembly committee that removing encryption would cost the department "several millions of dollars" and thousands of hours.

That argument did not hold true in Palo Alto, where the police department encrypted radio communications in January 2021 but then reversed that decision last August, when Andrew Binder took over as police chief. Instead of encryption, the department adopted a new radio policy that gives officers various options for securely transmitting personally identifiable information. These include using their cellphones for that purpose or using multiple broadcasts to relay bits of information that, if considered together, could be used to identify an individual.

Former Palo Alto Police Chief Bob Jonsen, who opted to encrypt the city's radio communications, has since been elected to serve as sheriff at Santa Clara County, where encryption remains in place.

Becker said the goal of the new bill is to "restore access the media and the public had to police radio communications for nearly a century up until three years ago when law enforcement agencies were given the option to shut it down."

Becker said that since the DOJ directive, about 100 law enforcement agencies across the state have gone with full encryption, a number that he noted is climbing. The list includes large countywide agencies such as the sheriff's departments in Santa Clara, Riverside, Orange and San Bernardino counties.

SB 719 would not apply to tactical operations, undercover operations or "other communications that would unreasonably jeopardize public safety or the safety of officers or dispatchers if made public," according to the bill's text.

"Encryption of public safety radio communications has largely focused on its impact to public safety officers without consideration of the public's vested interest," the bill states. "This bill seeks to correct that imbalance by continuing to protect sensitive information from public distribution while also ensuring the transparency of non-sensitive communications that Californians have come to expect."

Becker said in a statement that the ability to hear how officers talk to one another over the radio helps make police departments more accountable.

"On a practical level, it also makes it easier for the media to report on public safety activities such as accidents or shootings, so the public can be told about areas to avoid."

The bill is scheduled for a hearing in front of the Senate Public Safety Committee on March 28.


About the Author: Gennady Sheyner

Gennady Sheyner covers the City Hall beat in Palo Alto as well as regional politics, with a special focus on housing and transportation. Before that he covered news and politics for the Waterbury Republican-American, a daily newspaper in Connecticut.
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