Los Altos police need to encrypt their radio system | information

Los Altos Police Department plans to begin encrypting their police radio communications in March, a decision that limits how the public and media can monitor ongoing law enforcement activity in their neighborhoods.

Town Crier File Photo Los Altos Police are expected to begin encrypting their radio communications in March.

In a memo to Los Altos City Council on Tuesday (Jan. 19), Police Chief Andy Galea wrote that the department had followed up on an assignment from the state’s Department of Justice sent to law enforcement agencies last October, ordering that personal data such as a person’s name or driver’s license number is no longer transmitted through police scanners. The memo states that the encryption requirement would prevent identity theft and give privacy to crime victims.

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

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

Earlier this month, a similar decision by Palo Alto police sparked controversy and led to critical editorials in both the city’s newspapers, in part because the police scanner was unplugged without warning or input from the city council. The state order also comes after calls for more transparency from police authorities in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd last summer.

“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 reach the public. “I definitely understand the concerns of those who lose access to our main radio channel.”

The memo was posted this week under the “Information Items Only” item on the city council’s agenda for next Tuesday’s session – not as a discussion item or public hearing, which means it is uncertain whether the council will actually discuss the decision next week.

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

It is common for journalists and neighborhood guards to monitor police communications over the air – which can be done with any commercial scanner or smartphone scanning app – to notify the public of emergencies or other situations involving major police activity.

By the end of the year, every police station in Santa Clara County is expected to switch to an encrypted radio channel. Apart from Los Altos and Mountain View, only Milpitas and Santa Clara have not yet encrypted their police scanner.

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