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Palo Alto has an escalating transparency problem -- the police have shut their doors

Uploaded: Apr 6, 2021
On Monday, April 5, the police chief of Minneapolis, Medaria Arradondo, was testifying at the George Floyd trial about his professional view that defendant Derek Chauvin’s actions in the case were unethical and against police policy. That same day, Palo Alto’s Police Chief Robert Jonsen was also under the city council’s investigation concerning the loss of police department transparency in a city that demands police openness.

Jonsen imposed his new encryption policy on Jan. 6, without public or city council knowledge, He was acting, he said, on a state Department of Justice order that police encrypt all personal information (license number, date of birth, police background) from any radio transmission. The DOJ order also said if a way can be found to omit that private information from these radio transmissions, encryption was not needed. Jonsen opted for total encryption, including not allowing the press to listen to daily police activity.

At Monday night’s meeting, to the dismay of many of us, Jonsen kept on saying any change from the current status was “complicated", would take a long time, would be very hard to do, would endanger our relationships with other cities, etc. In other words, he didn’t want to do it. Even toggling (jumping for one communication channel to another) was "a very complicated approach."

Yes, he wanted to keep his new self-imposed encryption policy intact. The city council is the policy maker in most instances; it has let the police department do its own thing – although that began to change last year. Despite a declaration of a transparent department, it is getting more opaque.

There are several incidents within the last couple of years (Jonsen took over as chief in 2018) that show the police department closing its doors to the public and press -- all very upsetting and inappropriate for this community:

• Encryption means all police radio transmissions are unavailable now for the press and public to listen to. Jonsen said he had to do this because of a recent California Department of Justice rule that said such radio transmissions must be shut down because certain personal information must be protected (driver’s license number, address, police record, etc.) OR, if police can find another way to hide this information from the public, they may do that in lieu of encryption. As Dave Price wrote in the Daily Post, the DOJ employee who did this, Joe Dominic, chief of DOJ’s Justice Services Information Division, Price said, memo “came out of nowhere,” and no new encryption law had been adopted. When Price tried to get ahold of Dominic, he “ducked” the Post’s phone calls. Hmm, a double cover-up. Great credit to Price for his detailed column on this subject.

Without access to police radio broadcasts, it is hard to find out about police conduct. How does the press or the public get to know what’s happening in town? Such police lack of access is, in my estimation, against the First Amendment. The police have shut their doors.

• Police dog bites man is the second big incident – Mountain View police were looking for a suspect, called in the PA police dog and handler, Officer Nick Enberg. The dog sniffed something in the back yard. Enberg saw a sleeping person in the back yard, and he told the dog to attack. Yes, the “sleeper,” Joel Alejo, woke up with a snarling dog in his face, He stood up and then Enberg told the dog to attack again, never saying a word yet to Alejo, whose leg by now was bitten.

MV police arrived and told Enberg that Alejo was not the person they were looking for. Alejo sued.

The incident was never made public, but the suit was and the public, about four months later, learned about it in the Post. Why not a police report? PA police said the man was not injured enough to report it. But if you read the PA police blog, all sorts of incidents are reported -- stolen bikes, fender benders, etc. Why in the world keep something like a police dog bite closeted? Because, I suspect, it’s embarrassing for the police department and Jonsen doesn’t want that. Nothing happened to Enberg who is still on staff working as a dog handler.

• In order to find about a crime or an incident, a reporter typically talks to a lieutenant or the press officer on duty. Well, Jonsen had declared that press can no longer talk to ANY police officer -- they must send their question online to the department, and “someone will get back that day or the next. Do you know what that means if you are reporting a story? “Was anyone killed in a big accident on Middlefield?” I might ask. Or, “Why are the burglary rates increasing so much?” If a reporter sends in a question, gets an answer that needs more clarification, he cannot call the police but must email his new question to the department and will get a reply in 24 hours. So, the public might not find out about the big accident for four or five days after the occurrence.

• The police had to cut its budget and one of the couple of jobs Jonsen eliminated was the Public Communications slot and the police technician. Public communications? Sure sounds like another way to eliminate press access to the department.

• There’s much more. A 2019 report from the outside police auditor was not made public until earlier this year. A council member asked why. No response yet that I know about.

Bravo to the questions and suggestions from Mayor Tom DuBois and Vice Mayor Pat Burt. They seemed truly concerned with what was happening, as did Councilmember Greg Stone, and their suggestions for what to do next were good ones. A couple of other on the council praised the police for keeping us all safe and well, and their suggestions were perfunctory. And Councilmember Greer Tanaka was worried about how Palo Alto license scanners were doing and how helpful they were. Jonsen said he would get back to him on that.

City Manager Ed Shikada was there with the council members. It seemed, but I may be reading him wrong, that he agreed with Jonsen that it would be difficult and complicated to change things. But Shikada hasn’t done an outstanding job in having the Utilities Department provide any detailed information about all the recent power outages (see Sherry Listgarten’s interesting April 4 blog on this topic).

So, what happens next? DuBois indicates there will be a council meeting covering this topic, which is good. But we need more than that because the opaque cover of city business is getting darker and darker. I don’t think the council can do the investigation by itself – maybe a panel of community experts can contribute.

People, we have a problem this city. We need to recognize that and work hard to solve it.
Community.
What is it worth to you?

Comments

 +   6 people like this
Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Apr 6, 2021 at 3:28 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Great column. Thank you. Also re transparency. it also seems that the Police Blotter reports understate the crimes we've heard about from friends and read about on NextDoor with neighbors warning neighbors and expressing frustration at the PAPD's lack of responsiveness to their crime reports. And I'm still wondering about the late-night incident that blocked off the street across from my house where you could see at least 6 cop cars with the lights flashing Since there were no fire engines / ambulances, it seems like only a major crime would warrant such a response yet there's been nothing reported.


 +   5 people like this
Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Apr 6, 2021 at 4:29 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

Thanks for the explanation of this as it is something pertinent to residents looking for information. I can remember several years ago, there was something at Challenger School with lots of police activity. Middlefield Road was closed or blocked off by police. People in cars were stuck unable to move. I was delayed even though my route in South Palo Alto did not pass Challenger or cross Middlefield here. The PAWeekly never wrote up about this. Whether this was the Weekly not considering it important enough to cover, or whether the police would not give out the relevant information was unclear to me. As residents, we do depend on our local journalists to look into problems on our behalf. We do not like being told that a power outage is due to substation problem and not even if it is software problem, hardware problem or human error. To receive a second outage in 8 days (and on a major holiday) and still no mention of it in Palo Alto Weekly adds insult to injury. This is eye opening to me on how journalists get their information. There was a PAPD media PR rep who had been a local tv reporter. She was fired for budget reasons. Now we have this announcement. It seems to me that we are going to be in the dark in knowing what is going on in more ways than one.


 +   6 people like this
Posted by Citizen , a resident of another community,
on Apr 7, 2021 at 7:09 am

Citizen is a registered user.

With radio encryption, falsified police reports, and limited press releases by law enforcement, the news media will need to rely more on witness accounts and recordings. The police want to limit full disclosure to the public and the logic behind the 'crooks will be able to listen in' is ludicrous. An example of a questionable police shooting/murder captured by an onlooker: Web Link


 +   6 people like this
Posted by Anneke, a resident of Professorville,
on Apr 7, 2021 at 10:57 am

Anneke is a registered user.

We have a Dutch proverb: "The way the host is, that is how he trusts his guests." A black uniform, a gun, a taser, a significant amount of arrogance, and, now a lack of transparency, have negatively influenced some members of the police force, not only in Palo Alto, but all over the world. As citizens we have the right and the obligation to go against that attitude, and we need transparency in order to understand and react accordingly and correctly.


 +   8 people like this
Posted by Barron Parker Too, a resident of Barron Park,
on Apr 8, 2021 at 2:11 pm

Barron Parker Too is a registered user.

Diane, you're way off on this one. It's a cheap trick to start with an event in Minneapolis and then pretend we have the same problem here in Palo Alto. We don't. This is an issue that activists who hate and distrust the police will always raise. In fact, most Palo Alto citizens trust the police, and understand that they are well-trained to protect us. Through the Palo Alto Citizens Police Academy -- a course of about 12 evenings of instruction in how police work to prevent crime and respond to it -- I met over 20 officers and gained a lot of respect for their professionalism and dedication to preventing crime. There is no need for "reporters" to get real-time information about incidents in progress that could help criminals. As a compromise, perhaps the police can inform a selected set of reporters about incidents, but in such a way that it does not compromise police operations or endanger officers.


 +   7 people like this
Posted by Barron Park Denizen, a resident of Barron Park,
on Apr 8, 2021 at 3:37 pm

Barron Park Denizen is a registered user.

Barron Park Too makes good points. It was a low blow to conflate Derek Chauvin and Robert Jonsen in the lead paragraph. Chief Jonsen has worked hard to promote respect for the community within his department while undergoing major budget cuts, unfortunately including his Communications lead. The move to encryption was in response to a CA DOJ order. The alternative was to encrypt only a portion of the communications--that is, alternating between encrypted and non-encrypted communication depending on its confidentiality, an impracticable order for a responding officer dealing with thinking, driving, radio, and computer screen. Perhaps Ms. Diamond's beef is with the not-thought-through DOJ order that started this whole issue. And Chief Jonsen would have been prudent to check in with the City Manager and Council before proceeding. Ms. Diamond's goal of transparency would be best met by promoting the need for regular and thorough audit reports, and by the reinstitution of funding for a PD communications person, rather than push for press access to raw communications.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by rita vrhel, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Apr 13, 2021 at 9:49 am

rita vrhel is a registered user.

Thank you Diana! Please also read Joe Simitian's comments in the 4/8 Daily Post. Chief Jensen,IMO, was out of line making the encryption decision unilaterally. I am still not sure if our City Manager was involve in this decision or not. We are not Minneapolis BUT with an officer being promoted after calling a fellow officer the "n" word, multiple lawsuits for police brutality being successfully settled against the city (with more to come), late police audit reports, the CC essentially begging for them to be release,and 2 dog bite incidents....our Police Dept.needs review and reform. I hope the CC follows up and explores how to undo the encryption, maintaining the public's right to know. Lack of oversight is many times the initial step to corruption. And institutes some serious reform within the Police Department. No one is above the law; esp. the police.Thank you.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Ruben Marquez, a resident of another community,
on Apr 13, 2021 at 12:35 pm

Ruben Marquez is a registered user.

Another reason... Web Link


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