In January 2021, the Palo Alto Police Department encrypted police scanner broadcasts and closed its doors to all real-time media inquiries. We urge the PAPD to reopen public access to its police scanners and increase press communication for the sake of police transparency in our community. 

The PAPD encrypting radio transmissions was in response to an October 2020 California Department of Justice memo instructing local police departments statewide to withhold “personally identifiable information” such as birth dates or driver’s license numbers from public transmissions. Despite the memo’s clear guideline that departments could do this without fully encrypting, the PAPD revoked public access to police activity tracking with no advance notice three months later.

The PAPD recently released their “Police Calls for Service Interactive Map,” an interactive and 24/7 map with yellow dots indicating the general areas where calls were placed to the district. Clicking on each dot offers more information. 


We urge the PAPD to pick up the phone. Realtime reporter interviews and media coverage hold government agencies accountable, and eliminating such communication violates the public’s right to transparency.


While we commend this action and believe it is a well-intentioned step toward sharing once-broadcasted information, the map’s yellow dots — which often overlap and are thus difficult to click — are still limited in its efforts to inform. The “call type” category accompanying each yellow dot are vague, such as “medical information” or “suspicious circumstance,” with no further elaboration.

We urge the PAPD to instead adopt partial encryption of police scanners that omits personally identifiable information while maintaining public access to the transmissions. This is not only acceptable by the CDOJ memo’s standards, but has been planned for — the San Francisco Police Department planned for partial encryption in the months following the state-issued memo.

We recognize the PAPD’s other ongoing efforts to maintain transparency such as the decade-long employment of independent police auditors like Michael Gennaco. Gennaco brings external accountability to the police department by handling civilian complaints and performing internal investigations for the OIR Group’s biannual public reports.

Police accountability is more crucial than ever given racial injustice movements in recent years. These demonstrations exposed local police departments’ lack of transparency as a factor in racially-biased policing. The PAPD can do more, starting with implementing this partial encryption and reformulating department policy toward media inquiries.


“It [the current press policy] sends a message to me that the police are absolutely unwilling to share things, period. They [the PAPD] have said, ‘Okay, we will have our press releases. We will issue press releases to you from time to time.’ Well, that doesn’t work because they choose what they want to release. … Many things go undiscovered by the press.”

— Diana Diamond, Palo Alto Online columnist


Currently, members of the press searching for PAPD comment must submit questions through an online form. Reporters are promised a response in up to five business days, though responses are described to be “more timely” for cases involving danger to public safety.

“It [the current press policy] sends a message to me that the police are absolutely unwilling to share things, period,” Palo Alto Online columnist Diana Diamond said. “They [the PAPD] have said, ‘Okay, we will have our press releases. We will issue press releases to you from time to time.’ Well, that doesn’t work because they choose what they want to release. … Many things go undiscovered by the press.”

Delayed form responses and the police call map’s limited information are major obstacles in local journalists’ efforts to cover breaking news about police activity in a timely manner. Regaining access to 24/7 police scanner broadcasts — with necessary privacy measures — would fix this issue and serve as an important accountability measure for on-the-job officers. 

We urge the PAPD to pick up the phone. Realtime reporter interviews and media coverage hold government agencies accountable, and eliminating such communication violates the public’s right to transparency.

The Palo Alto Police Department is fully transparent to the public and press.
×