Los Altos PD to encrypt the radio system

Los Altos Police Department plans to begin encrypting police radio communications in March. This decision will limit how the public and media can monitor ongoing law enforcement activities in their neighborhood.

In a January 19 memo to Los Altos City Council, Police Chief Andy Galea wrote that the department was complying with a mandate from the state’s Department of Justice sent to law enforcement agencies last October, and ordering that personal information such as a person’s name or Driver’s license numbers can no longer be transmitted via police scanners. The memo said the encryption requirement would prevent identity theft and provide privacy to victims of crime.

The Justice Department gave local law enforcement agencies two options: encrypting their radio transmissions, or finding an alternative, encrypted communication tool to disseminate personal information while maintaining a public police scanner.

According to Galea, the department was considering the second option but did not have the personnel to monitor an additional radio channel. He said Los Altos plans to move to encrypted transmission in March with the Mountain View Police Department.

Earlier this month, a similar decision by the Palo Alto Police Department sparked controversy and led to critical editorials from both the city’s newspapers, in part because the plug was pulled on the police scanner without warning and without any advice from the city council. The state order also comes after calls for greater transparency from police authorities last summer after George Floyd was killed by police.

“Recent news reports have raised concerns about the encryption of police radios and how this change would restrict access of the news media or community members to police activity,” wrote Galea, adding that the department would continue to use social media to support that alert the public. “I certainly understand the concerns of those who would lose access to our main radio channel.”

The memo was posted this week in the “For Information Only” section of the city council’s agenda for Tuesday’s meeting, which came after the Town Crier went to press.

“Los Altos Police are ready to communicate the transition to an encrypted main radio channel weeks before the change,” wrote Galea.

It was common for journalists and watchdogs in the neighborhood to monitor police communications over the air – this can be done with any commercial scanner or smartphone scanning app – to keep the public informed in emergencies or other situations with major police activity.

Every Santa Clara County Police Department is expected to switch to an encrypted radio channel by the end of the year. In addition to Los Altos and Mountain View, only Milpitas and Santa Clara have not yet encrypted their police scanner.

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