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Author: SethGrimes

My pick for State’s Attorney, and why this local race matters

My pick for State’s Attorney, and why this local race matters

Perry Paylor is my pick for Montgomery County State’s Attorney in the 2022 Democratic primary. He is running to fight for a brighter and more equitable future for all County residents, and he is uniquely positioned among the candidates to make change reality. 

The State’s Attorney is Montgomery County’s lead prosecutor. This is an elected office whose policies have a major, underappreciated impact on public safety, justice, equity, and the well-being of county residents. Yet the office’s 70+ lawyers have been led in recent years by an old-school prosecutor, and it shows. Did you know, for instance, that —

As of May 2020, the county jail population was 54% Black, compared to 18% of our County’s population. Between 2011 and 2020, Youth of Color comprised 90% of our detained juvenile population and 100% of our juveniles charged as adults. And there are no People of Color supervising trial attorneys in Montgomery County or in the top ranks (with the exception of the Community Outreach Officer, who does not supervise attorneys).

Perry Paylor will bring the change we need.

Perry needs your support in the form of a campaign contribution. I’ve contributed. Will you? Any amount will help: $25, $50, $100, $250, or more. Visit https://secure.actblue.com/donate/perrypaylor2022 to donate.

Why do I support Perry and why should you?

Perry Paylor has experience and credibility as a candidate. He is currently Deputy State’s Attorney in Prince George’s County. He understands the importance of diversion programs and alternatives to trial, eliminating cash bail (which discriminates against individuals without means), and ending the prosecution of low-level crimes, and he has fresh ideas on addressing domestic violence, elder abuse, and youth in the criminal justice system.

Here’s a short campaign video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JMWDkhUBgeM. To find out more, visit Perry’s Web site to learn about his background, leadership, and the steps he will take to create a safer Montgomery County.

Perry’s campaign will rely on contributions to get its message to voters across the county. Can we count on you? Please visit https://secure.actblue.com/donate/perrypaylor2022 to contribute.

Thank you for your support, and best wishes for the new year!

Seth

P.S. Since this is an electoral message, I’ll state that it is not authorized by any candidate or committee. I’m writing you because I believe Perry Paylor is the right candidate for a very important race.

Montgomery County Should Create a Path to Public Campaign Finance

Montgomery County Should Create a Path to Public Campaign Finance

The Montgomery County Council is considering legislation to amend the county’s public campaign finance system. Expedited Bill 45-21, as introduced, would “permit certain limited inkind donations (equivalent to $10,000 or less) from state or County central committees to publicly financed candidates.” Interesting and reasonable. But so long as the council is considering finance amendments, how about an addition that could encourage candidates to switch from conventional finance?

My December 7, 2021 public hearing testimony proposes creating a path to public finance that, importantly, would prevent harm to candidates who run using public finance from the start. Here’s what I had to say —

 

Expedited Bill 45-21, Elections – Public Campaign Financing – Restrictions

December 7, 2021

Support with Amendment: A Path to Public Finance

Councilmembers, please amend Expedited Bill 45-21 to create a path to public finance for candidates who start an election cycle with a conventional finance committee.

I’m a proponent of public campaign finance and used it myself in 2018. A challenge is that some candidates start an election cycle unsure which office they’ll run for, so they start with a conventional finance committee to keep their options open. For example, former Delegate Bill Frick started the 2018 cycle fundraising to run for reelection to the House of Delegates. He then switched to a Montgomery County race but would have had to spend down or return a considerable sum in order to take advantage of Montgomery County public campaign finance.

The County Council should provide a path to public finance for candidates who enter a cycle with a conventional finance committee. Montgomery County should allow those candidates to benefit from the fundraising they’ve done – we all know the hard work involved – but within the strictures of the public system. Further, that path to public finance must be the only path so as to not disadvantage candidates who are not switching systems.

The mechanism: Add provisions to Expedited Bill 45-21 to allow a candidate to transfer funds from a conventional finance committee, to a public finance committee, within the limits and strictures of the public-finance system. These provisions must disallow creation of a public finance committee by a candidate who previously had a conventional finance committee within an election cycle, outside of this path.

Detail: Contributions within the public finance contribution limit and rules may be retained, and the unspent balance of those contributions may be transferred to the public-finance account. These earlier contributions within public finance rules, whether or not they have been spent, would count toward matching threshold requirements and would be eligible for county matching. However contributions not allowed by public finance (e.g., from corporations and PACs, transfers from another candidate’s account, and any unspent balance from previous election cycles), and amounts above the public-finance contribution limit, must be returned and would not be eligible for matching or count toward matching requirements.

For example, if a candidate accepted a $500 conventional finance contribution from an individual and wanted to switch within the same election cycle to public finance, the candidate would have to return $250, the above-limit amount, to the donor. $250 would be transferred to the public finance committee if not already spent, and that

amount would match-eligible whether or not already spent. If a candidate accepted a $1,000 conventional finance contribution from a PAC or corporation and wanted to switch to public finance, the candidate would need to return the full $1,000 to the donor because PAC and corporate contributions are ineligible.

This path to public finance would respond to a real-world scenario in order to expand the use of Montgomery County public campaign finance. Please give it your consideration.

Thrive Montgomery 2050 testimony, June 17, 2021

Thrive Montgomery 2050 testimony, June 17, 2021

Here’s testimony I presented at the June 17, 2021 Montgomery County Council hearing on the Thrive Montgomery 2050 plan. Comment was limited to two minutes so this testimony is brief.

I like the Thrive Montgomery 2050 initiative and appreciate Montgomery Planning’s work to bring us to this point.

I support bold steps to create new housing, commercial opportunities, and amenities, particularly in areas well served by transit such as Takoma Park, Silver Spring, Somerset, and Chevy Chase, via up-zoning; steps to promote walkable, bikeable neighborhoods and corridor commercial centers; and prioritization of equity and environmental concerns. Beyond this, I’ll address just two points.

One is quick: I regret the omission, in the final text – unless I missed something – of explicit discussion of development parking minimums. Excess parking imposes costs on tenants, adds to building footprint and bulk, and leads to driving at the expense of transit use, walking, and biking. Can you find a way to address this?

I’ll start my second point with an excerpt from page 27:

“The 1964 plan envisioned corridor cities along I-270, I-95, and Route 29, yet subsequent planning efforts… disregarded and ultimately removed the growth corridor along Route 29 and I-95 in the eastern portion of the county [which] effectively directed new public and private investment away from the East County and toward the established urban ring and I-270 corridor… This recurring pattern aggravated the racial and economic disparities between the eastern and western parts of the county that remain today.”

I see shadows of this error in the draft before us, which does not classify southeast county areas such as Long Branch and Takoma-Langley Crossroads as growth centers, as they should be classified. These are border areas, heavily immigrant and moderate income, yet this plan neglects them, just as the 1964 plan neglected East County. Growth in those areas isn’t easy – cooperation with Prince George’s County would be required – yet equity and the interests of all county residents, including in over-developed Bethesda, say that attention is imperative. We must set the stage for strong execution on our growth, equity, and environmental ideals. Please do what you can to address this omission.

Thank you.

Planning Board testimony supporting Montgomery County zoning text amendment (ZTA) 20-07, to promote “missing middle” housing

Planning Board testimony supporting Montgomery County zoning text amendment (ZTA) 20-07, to promote “missing middle” housing

Montgomery County Councilmember Will Jawando’s proposed Zoning Text Amendment (ZTA) 20-07 would allow duplexes, townhouses, and small apartments in neighborhoods zoned R-60 (single-unit houses on lots 6,000 sq. ft. or larger) within a mile of a Metrorail station. I drafted Takoma for All’s testimony asking the Montgomery County Planning Board to support the bill with amendments, including that it cover the whole of Takoma Park, and I presented TFA’s position at the February 4, 2021 Planning Board meeting. Here’s our testimony —

February 4, 2021 — Item 5
Zoning Text Amendment No. 20-07: R-60 Zone – Uses and Standards 
Support

Takoma for All (TFA) is an advocacy organization that promotes a sustainable, equitable, transit-oriented community through the creation and preservation of affordable and market-rate housing, commercial spaces, and community amenities. 

TFA supports Montgomery County Councilmember Will Jawando’s proposed Zoning Text Amendment (ZTA) 20-07 and asks that the Planning Board recommend four amendments. 

We’re all aware of the need for additional housing in Montgomery County, and we see allowing duplexes, townhouses, and multi-unit apartments building in areas zoned “residential detached” as one mechanism toward that end. We also support steps to encourage racial and economic diversity throughout the county. ZTA 20-07 would advance us toward both goals. Lacking a Montgomery County transit oriented development (TOD) residential zone or countywide TOD master plan, this ZTA is a proper (and timely) mechanism for these reforms.

Takoma for All’s suggested amendments are as follows:

  1. Some residential areas within the ZTA 20-07 coverage radius around Metrorail stations are not zoned R-60. Please recommend amendment of ZTA 20-07 to cover R-90 and R-40 zones in addition to the R-60 zone. 
  2. Takoma For All communicated another requested amendment to the Takoma Park City Council, which held a worksession discussion of ZTA 20-07 on January 21. The council is considering a position. Relaying that amendment to you:  Please recommend that ZTA 20-07 — both allowance for duplexes, townhouses, and multi-unit apartments and lessened parking and infill density requirements — cover the full extent of incorporated Takoma Park.
    Many Takoma Park neighborhoods, both within a mile of the Takoma Metro station and outside that radius, already support a mix of Missing Middle housing types in the form of houses subdivided into apartments and small-scale apartment buildings as well as townhouses. City areas that are distant from the Metrorail station are close to the planned Long Branch and Takoma-Langley Crossroads Purple Line stations, to the Takoma Langley Crossroads Transit Center, and to express buses and possible future bus rapid transit along New Hampshire Avenue.
    A ZTA 20-07 covering the full extent of Takoma Park would advance the goals of the city’s 2019 Housing and Economic Development Strategic Plan and our city’s commitment to racial equity and economic diversity. A particular benefit is that an extended-coverage ZTA would raise the density floor for a couple of large redevelopable parcels in the city: the former Washington Adventist Hospital campus and the Washington-McLaughlin property, site of a former school.
    Please recommend amendment to cover the whole of Takoma Park, just as 2019’s ZTA 19-01, liberalizing accessory dwelling unit (ADU) rules, was extended to cover the whole city.
  3. Please recommend a third amendment:  All clauses that reference a radius distance from “a Metrorail Station entrance” should also be amended to cover that radius distance from “a Metrorail Station entrance, Purple Line station, or bus-rapid transit (BRT) station.”
  4. Finally, please recommend elimination of parking minimums within the areas covered by ZTA 20-07, within one mile of a Metrorail station and additionally within one mile of a Purple Line or BRT station, if the ZTA is amended to cover those other transit facilities, within the “residential detached” zones that are covered.

Takoma for All asks the Planning to support ZTA 20-07 and recommend it be amended to cover 1) R-40 and R-90 zones, 2) areas close to Purple Line and bus rapid transit stations in addition to Metrorail stations, and 3) the entirety of the City of Takoma Park and that it 4) eliminate parking minimums in the covered areas.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment. 

Submitted February 4, 2021 on behalf of Takoma for All  by Seth Grimes, seth.grimes@gmail.com.


Takoma Park’s Housing and Economic Development Strategic Plan includes:

Objective #1: “Increase the number of units and variety of housing types across the affordability spectrum that are attractive to a diverse demographic and do not result in economically segregated communities or increase existing economic segregation.” 

Strategy A: “Encourage and facilitate the creation and expansion of housing types that are under-represented in Takoma Park, or in a particular section of Takoma Park, and desired by existing and new residents of various incomes, needs, abilities and family configurations; work to change County allowable use and zoning provisions to accomplish this.” 

Strategy D: “Encourage infill housing development, such as single-family detached homes, townhouses, and multifamily structures; encourage investments to grow residential capacity on properties with existing single-family homes through accessory dwelling units and owner-occupied group homes. Build in such a way as to be resilient to the effects of climate change; and, where possible, use grants, credits or other methods to lower purchase prices, maintenance costs, and energy costs to allow for greater affordability.”

My Thrive Montgomery 2050 Public-Hearing Testimony

My Thrive Montgomery 2050 Public-Hearing Testimony

Thrive Montgomery 2050 is “a general plan for the county with a 30-year horizon. It sets a vision for the county and encompasses broad, county-wide policy recommendations for land use, zoning, housing, the economy, equity, transportation, parks and open space, the environment, and historic resources.” If you’re concerned with equity and opportunity — for human development, economic vitality, and environmental progress — and believe as I do that land-use policy can advance us in these causes, then you’ll want to look into this plan.

The Montgomery County Planning Board held a Thrive Montgomery 2050 public hearing on November 19, 2020. The following is my hearing testimony:

I like the Thrive Montgomery 2050 initiative and I very much appreciate Montgomery Planning’s work.

The majority of comments you will hear will be high-level and values based. I’m going to be very specific and focus on just three points. The first two are narrow:

1) The document discusses “missing middle” housing, the desirability of changing zoning to enable wider creation of smaller, multi-unit buildings. Cool. However, Action 1.1.4.a calls for housing “particularly in areas located within a 15-minute walk or bike ride of rail and bus rapid transit (BRT).” Let’s develop a robust action plan that will bring housing-diversity benefits to all areas, prioritizing high-promise areas — as you’re doing now with the Silver Spring Downtown and Adjacent Communities Plan — with others slated to come later.

2) I absolutely love Action 4.3.1.a: “Eliminate motor vehicle parking minimums for new development projects in downtowns, town centers, and rail and BRT corridors to encourage travel by walking, bicycling, and transit,” but it should be extended to adjacent areas as well, perhaps with that same “15-minute walk or bike ride” criterion. I also appreciate Action 5.2.1.b’s language about “redeveloping surface parking lots and underutilized property” but that action shouldn’t be limited to “mixed-income housing at employment centers.” I’m thinking, in particular, about adaptive reuse of office parks such as Rock Spring.

3) Point 10 under Trends and Challenges is “We need to look for regional solutions” (page 23). The narrative states, “we have strong ties to the Baltimore region. We must consider how to take advantage of our proximity to the economic opportunities available in neighboring jurisdictions, including major job centers, colleges and universities, and cultural and recreational attractions. We also should consider regional solutions to the challenges we face and think of Montgomery County as part of a larger ecosystem.”

The 1964 Wedges and Corridors featured 6 corridors in an asterisk design. One of those corridors was along I-95 (and the railway line) in Prince George’s County, paralleling the Prince George’s-Montgomery border, with a direct connection to Baltimore-Washington Airport.

Montgomery County did precious little to take advantage of this corridor, really prior to the last decade’s development in White Oak. Think what we might have gained if Montgomery County had worked with Prince George’s to pursue East County corridor development over the last half century, including lessened development pressure on Bethesda and American Legion Bridge congestion.

Ingredients are in place, or soon will be. The Intercounty Connector, while ill-conceived, is now an underutilized reality connecting points west to I-95. We have our first bus rapid transit on Route 29, and construction has started on another east-west connector, the Purple Line, which crosses the the southern ends of the corridor in Silver Spring and in Langley Park. Yet corridor cities and areas such as Hillandale, Burtonsville, and Fairland remain in sore need of attention.

The only explicit mention of East County I could find in the Thrive 2050 document was a one-liner, “Policy 3.3.4: Create new educational and workforce development opportunities in the East County,” with only one specific idea, “Explore creating a fourth Montgomery College campus in the East County.” I would have liked to see much more than this in the document. I hope this time we will truly plan regional solutions, with special focus on East County revitalization in cooperation with Prince George’s and Howard Counties, pursuant in particular to Goal 3.2, “Grow vibrant commercial centers,” and the policy points under it.

Sunil Dasgupta for Montgomery County Board of Education, at-large

Sunil Dasgupta for Montgomery County Board of Education, at-large

Dear Friends and Neighbors,

I support Sunil Dasgupta for the 2020 at-large seat on the Montgomery County Board of Education, and I’m hosting an online event with Sunil on Monday, May 11, 5:00 pm-6:00 pm, that I invite you to attend. The form to register is https://forms.gle/iGpSGzk4ssAHGKjd7. Sunil’s campaign will send a Zoom link prior to the event.

We’ll be receiving mail-in ballots soon — I received 2020 Maryland Absentee Ballot e-mail from the Board of Elections on May 4 — so in case you want to vote before Monday, I’ll relate to you now that:

I support Sunil because a) he’s highly qualified and b) he has taken a clear progressive position supporting boundary analysis and changes as an approach to relieving school overcrowding. Progressive here means that for Sunil, equity — equal access — is a primary consideration as we tackle pressing and difficult school capacity, funding, educational, and student-support challenges.

Sunil is engaged and highly responsive. He has the ability to take on difficult matters such as overcrowding in a sensitive way that will advance us toward solutions rather than deepening divisions, and he has the experience and connections to be effective in the BOE role from day 1. I’ll paste in additional position points below my signature.

Of course Sunil understands education, our public schools, and our system, and he has a true activist’s passion to work especially hard for Montgomery County students who most need strong Board of Education advocates on their side. Condensed background: “Sunil Dasgupta, Ph.D., is a first-generation immigrant, parent of three public school students, and a longtime educator in Montgomery County. Sunil serves on the Board of Directors of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs (MCCPTA) and is MCCPTA Health and Wellness chair and Rockville Cluster Coordinator. Sunil was PTA President at Earle B. Wood Middle School and serves on the Montgomery Planning Board’s Schools Technical Advisory Team. Sunil teaches political science and directs the Political Science Program for UMBC at the Universities at Shady Grove (USG). Nearly 90 percent of Sunil’s students have been Montgomery County Public School students who take the 2+2+2 pathway from high school to Montgomery College and finally to the USG.”

Learn more about Sunil and his positions, sign up for campaign updates, and contribute at sunildasgupta.com, and I hope you will join the Monday session I’m hosting for him, May 11, 5 pm-6:00 pm, RSVP herehttps://forms.gle/iGpSGzk4ssAHGKjd7Sunil’s campaign will send you the Zoom link and a reminder 24 hours before the event, and will see you online then!

Seth

 

Sunil will — key positions:

  • Defend public education from budget cuts and unequal access
  • Add teachers and staff, and reduce class size/staff ratio to meet the individual needs of students
  • Expand counselors and social workers to meet the crisis in student mental health
  • Enable parents, teachers, and staff to work together to ensure student success
  • Push for climate change action by adding solar generation and converting the MCPS bus fleet to electric
  • Find the resources to achieve these goals, including rebalancing the capital and operating budgets
  • Create a process for regular, systemwide school boundary review and adjustment, using time-lagged execution of change to ensure student assignment stability
  • Develop processes for open data, transparent decisions, and public accountability

Website and Donation Page: sunildasgupta.com
Twitter: @sunildasgupta4
Facebook: @SunilforSchoolBoard
Instagram: @sunildasgupta4

In support of the Montgomery County “COVID-19 Renter Relief Act”

In support of the Montgomery County “COVID-19 Renter Relief Act”

I contacted the Montgomery County Council in support of pending legislation that would impose temporary residential rent stabilization. The legislation, Expedited Bill 18-20, is sensible, reasonable, and fair, as I wrote in my message. If you’d like to learn more, check out the April 14, 2020 council agenda item and also a short video in which lead sponsor Councilmember Will Jawando explains why he introduced the bill.

Here’s my message to the council. Please consider conveying your own support for the bill to the council.

Allow me to express my support for Expedited Bill 18-20, the “COVID-19 Renter Relief Act.”

I support the aim of protecting vulnerable county residents. The COVID-19 crisis has made their situations markedly more challenging. Montgomery County must take whatever sensible, reasonable, and fair steps it can to to protect these individuals and families. Expedited Bill 18-20 would put in place one such step, by creating temporary residential rent stabilization with a defined sunset date.

The bill’s financial impact on landlords would be modest, however the bill could make a huge difference to residents living on the edge, who have lost employment and who maybe now have to educate their kids at home and deal with the pandemic’s health impact. The bill will also benefit the county as a whole, by helping residents who then won’t have to seek support from the county because of an unstable housing situation.

I’ll further observe that the City of Takoma Park has had residential rent stabilization for many years. Our rental housing stock is in good shape; it’s outside the city that the most glaring landlord neglect in recent years has occurred. Rent stabilization — noting that the proposed county rule is temporary — will not lead to degraded housing conditions.

My thanks to Councilmember Jawando for introducing the bill and to Council President Katz and Councilmembers Rice and Navarro for co-sponsoring. I hope the other councilmembers will sign on as co-sponsors and that the council as a whole will enact the legislation.

More & Better Farming With Solar Panels: In support of MontCo ZTA 20-01

More & Better Farming With Solar Panels: In support of MontCo ZTA 20-01

I thought I’d share a letter I sent today (April 12 2020) to the Montgomery County Council in support of a pending zoning text amendment, ZTA 20-01, introduced by Councilmembers Hans Riemer and Tom Hucker and co-sponsored by Councilmember Craig Rice. I hope the council will enact the ZTA!

Councilmembers,

I continue to support ZTA 20-01, which would allow the limited installation of solar facilities in Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve. This legislation would allow significant ramp-up of Montgomery County’s local capacity to generate renewable energy and advance us toward meeting our county’s Climate Emergency goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2027.

An interesting and relevant article came across the TCM (Climate Mobilization) e-mail list on Friday, “After COVID-19, Here Comes More & Better Farming With Solar Panels” (https://cleantechnica.com/2020/04/09/after-covid-19-here-comes-more-better-farming-with-solar-panels/).

Pulling a quote: “Farmers are beginning to learn how to do their farming within solar arrays, and in a new green twofer, solar arrays could actually help push the regenerative agriculture movement into the mainstream.”

The focus of the article is “A new solar project soon to start construction on a farm in Grafton, Massachusetts [that] is aiming to do double duty as a holistic preservation tool that helps improve soil and enhance nutrition for grazing animals. The ultimate goal is to create a more sustainable farm economy and cultivate the next generation of farmers.”

This sort of innovation — advancing both our climate response and sustainable agriculture — is precisely what ZTA 20-01 would enable!

The Case Against Public Safety Radio Traffic Encryption

The Case Against Public Safety Radio Traffic Encryption

This is a guest post by Leonzo G. Williams, Major (Ret.), Fairfax County VA Police Department

Many local law enforcement agencies across the United States have encrypted all of their radio traffic including routine dispatch, special tactical channels, and training channels. They claim that it “enhances” the safety of first responders and citizens. Although changes in technology allow for encryption at little or no cost, agencies that are implementing it are relying on the unproven assumption that encryption is better for citizens and public safety personnel.

American law enforcement agencies trace their roots to Sir Robert Peel, a 19th century British statesman. He established the first modern law enforcement agency in London. Peel had nine principles on which he based the establishment of an ethical police force. Among them were the following[1]:

  • “The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.
  • Police must secure the willing cooperation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.
  • Police at all times should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time and attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”

So, what does all of that have to do with encryption? Everything! Robert Peel’s point is that police agencies are a part of the public that serves the public; it is their tax dollars that enable law enforcement agencies to purchase, operate, and maintain equipment including radios and other communication devices. American democracy values freedom and encourages transparency in government operations. Citizens value local independence and control, as evidenced by the absence of a national police force in favor of the establishment of thousands of locally run police forces throughout the country.

We allow citizens to gather information from law enforcement agencies through Freedom of Information Acts and agencies disseminate information via press briefings, websites, social media, and the release of statistical information. Law enforcement agencies establish neighborhood watch groups, citizen academies, auxiliary programs and other community outreach activities to further promote positive interactions with the citizens that they serve.

In this context, full encryption of all police radio systems in the United States runs counter to everything that U.S. law enforcement has historically stood for since its founding under Peel’s principles.

Given the number of local, regional, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, along with fire and rescue departments engaged in public safety activities, full encryption is already proving to be a major hindrance to radio interoperability (i.e., the ability of devices to exchange information). During times of crisis, there may be non-governmental agencies, working closely with first responders, that may also need to monitor public safety frequencies. When full encryption is implemented, interoperability ceases. It returns us to the days when radio dispatch centers called other dispatch centers on the telephone to relay critical, time-sensitive information; agencies are becoming again unable to directly communicate with one another due to incompatible encrypted radio channels.

On January 13, 1982, Air Florida flight 90 crashed on takeoff from National Airport into the Potomac River, which separates Washington, D.C. from the State of Virginia. Multiple public safety agencies responded to the crash, including the (D.C.) Metropolitan Police Department., U.S. Park P.D., Arlington County P.D., and the Metropolitan Airports Authority P.D. Also responding were the Washington, D.C. fire department, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority F.D., the Arlington County F.D., Alexandria City F.D., and Fairfax County F.D.

One of the major impediments to the rescue operation was a lack of radio interoperability. From that disaster, first responders came together to develop shared radio systems and digital mobile radio talkgroups (A DMR talkgroup is a way of organizing many radio IDs into a single digital contact). That way, a majority of Washington, D.C. area public safety agencies were able to share radio frequencies, allowing different jurisdictional agencies to communicate in real time as a situation dictated. That ability proved invaluable on September 11, 2001, when multiple agencies were needed to respond to the disaster at the Pentagon and, the absence of encryption, enabled all agencies to communicate directly and in real time.

Now, those same agencies are seriously considering dismantling this capability with a headlong rush into encryption. While it can be argued that if everyone becomes encrypted, all relevant agencies could share encryption keys, allowing them the ability to communicate with each other, the reality is in a crisis situations both government and  nongovernmental entities would be left out of the encrypted communication loop and unable to assist public safety agencies. The cost of encryption is not so much financial as it is societal; encryption limits citizen engagement and cooperation.

Also lost is situational awareness among agencies. Before encryption, many stakeholders routinely monitored each other’s public safety channels. Fire departments monitored law enforcement channels to identify and evaluate events that might involve them.

It was a passive, often informal monitoring, but it offered a great benefit. Off-duty personnel and civilian support personnel monitored their agencies or adjoining agencies. On-duty personnel, such as county police officers, could monitor the state troopers that worked in their county or vice versa. This type of monitoring allowed stakeholders to have greater situational awareness and supported a more robust response when needed.

As more and more public safety agencies encrypt routine dispatch radio traffic, this awareness is diminishing. Fire department personnel are not aware of what their law enforcement colleagues are doing until the moment a call is made to fire dispatch. Even then, they only hear what their fire dispatcher tells them, which is only what the police dispatcher has relayed to the fire dispatcher via a phone call. Encryption hamstrings public safety personnel for whom additional background information would enhance performance.

Much has been made regarding the media and encryption. Media outlets have sometimes rebroadcast public safety radio traffic without verifying it. On occasion, reporters have compromised law enforcement tactics in emergency situations. These incidents are unfortunate but not the norm. However, in response, some agency leaders have used them as additional reasons to fully encrypt their radio communications. They feel that preventing media outlets from monitoring public safety radio transmissions is good public policy.

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States prohibits government actions that infringe on the freedom of the press. In reality, how does the implementation of total public safety radio encryption square with the ability of members of the press to do their job? In practice, full encryption infringes upon their ability to perform their role as observers and reporters of government actions.

Some agencies state that the safety of their personnel must outweigh the public’s desire to listen in real time to their department’s radio operations. Nevertheless, if you ask these same agency heads if guns should be banned to insure the safety of their personnel, many will cite the Second Amendment, which allows citizens to own guns. If they understand the rights granted by the Second Amendment, how can they not recognize the freedoms guaranteed by the First?

Encryption does serve a valuable purpose in some circumstances. Radio traffic involving national security, presidential protection details, detective and narcotics operations, SWAT incidents and other tactical activities are exactly the types of communication that should be encrypted. Encrypting sensitive radio traffic helps maintain the safety of first responders and the public by limiting opportunities for that type of information to fall into the wrong hands.

However, encryption does not serve a purpose in the day-to-day routine dispatch that makes up so much of public safety radio traffic. For an example a lot of law enforcement agencies establish, or support neighborhood watch groups.

When an agency uses fulltime encryption, how can those groups or any taxpaying citizen become aware in real time of the situations occurring in their neighborhoods? It is meaningless for agencies to state they support neighborhood watch groups when encryption undermines citizens’ ability to be the extra set of eyes and ears for their neighborhoods.

In jurisdictions using full encryption, news outlets without access to real time police radio communications can no longer report traffic jams or incidents in a timely manner; citizens who formerly used their scanners or internet streams of radio traffic to monitor routine police activity can no longer call in useful tips to law enforcement. The slogan, “if you see something, say something®” loses some of its value when interested citizens are left out of the communications loop.

Full encryption breaks the bond between the community and the police as described by Peel[2]. Citizens may question why police in a democracy feel the need to hide all of their radio traffic from the public. It is a fair question. Just as events in Ferguson, Missouri gave rise to concerns about the militarization of U.S. police officers, full encryption generates concerns about a governmental lack of transparency. The existence of the technology does not obligate its use if it negates the government’s responsibility to share information with its citizens.

In the District of Columbia area, the Washington Metropolitan Police Department has encrypted all but one radio channel. However, they have not shown a correlation between encryption and a decrease in crime or an increase in arrests; they cannot demonstrate an impact on the safety of its officers. Yet, all of those criteria were cited as reasons for moving to full encryption. The only measurable difference has been the inability of citizens and other stakeholders to hear routine radio dispatch traffic!

In addition, while much has been made of encryption as a tool to thwart acts of terrorism, there has been no clear nexus there either. The Washington, D.C. police department is encrypted; they were the major first responders to the Navy Yard shooting in 2013. Encryption did not deter the shooter. However, it did hamper radio communications in real time with other agencies called in to assist.

Agency heads and policymakers should think long and hard before allowing our founding principles and beliefs to be trampled by limiting citizens’ abilities to hear any police radio traffic in an exaggerated desire to “keep officers and citizens safe.” Agencies and the public should be looking for data to back up those claims. Has encryption enhanced public or officer safety? Has encryption provided quantifiable gains in a department’s number of criminal/incident reports or in the effectiveness of its other public safety activities?

While there is clearly a role for encryption in public safety, it should be restricted to channels and talkgroups that deal with particularly sensitive situations and tactical matters. It should not be used for routine, regular dispatch. Policymakers should consider this: government agencies cannot operate in secrecy and expect to have public support. There must be transparency and accountability by government agencies that will allow and encourage the public to support them.

Recommendations:

  • Public safety administrators should carefully weigh the value of encryption against the significant negative impact to legitimate listeners of public safety radio traffic as well as to its impact on news gathering and traffic reporting organizations.
  • Public safety administrators should consider how encryption will affect their agency’s ability to communicate with neighboring jurisdictions.
  • Public safety administrators should make their decisions with the understanding that encryption is a tool that protects sensitive information from unwanted disclosure. However, its overuse can compromise the underlying elements of citizens’ trust and confidence in public safety.
  • For agencies that have already encrypted all of their radio communications: it is suggested that you end encryption on the main dispatch channel so that citizens and the media can listen in real time to what their local public safety agencies are doing in their communities.

About the Author

Leonzo “Lee” Williams began his 40-year law enforcement career in 1973 in New Jersey. He first “retired” in 2005 as a major from the Fairfax County Virginia Police Department. He returned to full-time law enforcement in 2008, retiring a second time in 2016 as a lieutenant from the Loudoun County Virginia Sheriff Office.

[1] https://improvingpolice.wordpress.com/2015/04/19/the-principles-of-policing-1829/  Peels’ Principles of Policing

[2] One of Peel’s principles is that “police are the public and the public are the police.”  The difference is the full-time nature of the police.

I Oppose Montgomery County MD Police Communications Encryption

I Oppose Montgomery County MD Police Communications Encryption

It’s my understanding that the Montgomery County MD Police Department plans to start encrypting routine police radio communications. I oppose this change from long-standing policy, as described in the letter I’m posting, below, that I sent to the county executive and police chief.

Thanks to Alan Henney, who alerted me and others to this planned policy change. Alan noted that the same issue was discussed in the Columbia Journalism Review in regard to Colorado policies. The CJR article notes,

“A national study published in 2017 found that police PIOs zealously try to control the narratives about their departments. That’s especially concerning in Colorado, where law enforcement officials have downplayed transparency implications by saying they will release information about breaking news on social media, in press releases, and in daily reports—as if those are reasonable substitutes for independent reporting.”

The CJR article quotes several authorities including Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida —

“The scanner functions as a check-and-balance to keep law enforcement agencies honest.”

— and David Cuillier, a media law professor at the University of Arizona and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freedom of Information Committee,

“I would think police would want scanner traffic public. It builds citizen trust and shows they are busy earning their tax-paid salaries. Otherwise, shrouded in secrecy, police are viewed more suspiciously and lose the trust of the public.” 

Please consider contacting county leaders yourself, to oppose this disfavorable police policy change. I wrote the County Executive Marc Elrich and Police Chief Marcus Jones also the members of the Montgomery County Council’s Public Safety Committee and at-large Councilmembers, and you might too. I’ll list the county-council addresses after the letter text. Here it is:

To: Marc Elrich <ocemail@montgomerycountymd.gov>, Marc Elrich <marc.elrich@montgomerycountymd.gov>, Marcus G. Jones <CHIEFMCPD@montgomerycountymd.gov>
Cc: Caroline Sturgis <Caroline.Sturgis@montgomerycountymd.gov>
I am very concerned about Montgomery County Police Department plans to encrypt routine radio communications including dispatch communications. I believe that these communications should remain unencrypted and therefore freely accessible to the public, the media, and any individual concerned with their content for any reason. Transparency is important, both so the public can stay informed about matters that concern them and to ensure police accountability, and also so the police can avoid accusations that they are keeping information from the public in order to hide improprieties.
I believe in government openness as a matter of principle, particularly in routine operations where there is no compelling reason for secrecy.
Please preserve our county’s long-standing policy of maintaining open, accessible, transparent routine police communications.
Thank you for your consideration.

Public Safety chair and members, Councilmembers: Sidney Katz <councilmember.katz@montgomerycountymd.gov>,
Gabe Albornoz <councilmember.albornoz@montgomerycountymd.gov>, Tom Hucker <councilmember.hucker@montgomerycountymd.gov>
At-large Councilmembers:  Evan Glass <Councilmember.Glass@montgomerycountymd.gov>, Hans Riemer <Councilmember.Riemer@montgomerycountymd.gov, and Will Jawando <Councilmember.Jawando@montgomerycountymd.gov>