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State bill on police radio encryption fizzles in committee

Assembly Appropriations Committee moves to 'hold' SB 1000, denying its passage
Senate Bill 1000, which would've required California law enforcement agencies to find alternatives to fully encrypted radio communications, failed to advance to the full state Assembly on Aug. 11, 2022.

A proposal to require California law enforcement agencies to find alternatives to full encryption of radio communications fizzled on Thursday morning when the state Assembly Appropriations Committee declined to advance the bill for a full Assembly vote.

State. Sen. Josh Becker at a podium
State Sen. Josh Becker, D-Menlo Park, speaks during a news conference Barron Park Elementary in Palo Alto on March 2, 2021. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

By agreeing to "hold the bill," the powerful committee effectively killed SB 1000 for this year. The legislation from state Sen. Josh Becker had cleared the state Senate in May and was on its penultimate step in the state Assembly on Thursday when it became one of dozens of bills at the committee's "suspense file" that failed to advance.

Becker, D-Menlo Park, said in an interview after the vote that he plans to bring the bill back next year. He said many of bill's supporters, including media organizations and nonprofit groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, became aware of the encryption issue fairly recently and that there was a flurry of activity at the end of the legislative process.

"I like to think we can keep the momentum going into next year," he said. "I do plan to bring it back."

The legislation was a response to a recent decision by more than 120 law enforcement agencies to fully encrypt radio communications, a move that blocked the ability of media organizations and the general public to track police activities using a scanner. SB 1000 gave agencies until January 2024 to find alternatives, whether by de-encrypting or by creating a way to stream communications online.

Police departments across the state made the switch to encryption after the state Department of Justice issued a directive in October 2020 requiring them to either fully encrypt or to adopt policies that would protect personally identifiable information and criminal records of individuals they encounter. Palo Alto, Mountain View and Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office were among the agencies that went with full encryption.

SB 1000 faced opposition from the California State Sheriffs' Association, which argued that switching to unencrypted communications would represent "a "significant burden to agencies that went to tremendous expense to obtain new technology or have previously encrypted their communications." The Appropriations Committee's legislative analyst also concluded that some state agencies, including California State University and California State Parks, would have to spend upwards of $10 million to comply with the bill's requirements.

Despite assertions by the bill's opponents about the high costs of compliance, some agencies have had no problem complying with the DOJ mandate without breaking the bank. Last week, Palo Alto announced that it will soon de-encrypt its main channel and adopt policies for protecting personal information. Under the policy, officers would have three options when transmitting such information: using a cellphone, splitting up individual components of personally identifiable information or only transmitting a person's driver's license over the radio.

Newly appointed Police Chief Andrew Binder told the council on Monday that the switch will not entail any significant costs. He noted, however, that other agencies may face different challenges and cost constraints than Palo Alto.

"Because of the really impressive, fantastic system that Silicon Valley Regional Interoperability Authority put in years ago, because we had equipment and because the department had the foresight not to get rid of the unencrypted channel, it really eased the amount of money that we had to spend to this point," Binder said, referring to the countywide system charged with ensuring seamless communication between emergency responders from different agencies. "Realizing that Palo Alto may be unique among other agencies that may have other obstacles."

Becker had argued at prior hearings on the bill that SB 1000 would not impact law enforcement agencies fiscally or operationally. It includes provisions for encrypted communication for tactical operations, undercover operations and other communications that may place officers or the public at risk if aired through an unencrypted channel. SB 1000, he argued, is necessary to ensure transparency.

Becker told this news organization that the cost argument was in many ways a "red herring" and misleading. The bill, he noted, provides organization various low-cost or no-cost ways to comply.

"I think the fundamental principle is pretty clear," Becker said. "As Palo Alto has shown, this is a civil rights issue. This is a First Amendment issue. We can provide access and protect people's information. We need to do both.

In a statement after the vote, Becker said the Legislature "missed a chance to ensure police transparency & accountability."

"Without this fix, many agencies will continue to encrypt vital radio communications, cutting off almost 90 yrs of public & press access to critical public safety info," Becker posted on Twitter. "I'll continue to fight to restore access."