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About this blog: So much is right — and wrong — about what is happening in Palo Alto. In this blog I want to discuss all that with you. I know many residents care about this town, and I want to explore our collective interests to help ...  (More)

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Don’t keep information from the public

Uploaded: Apr 20, 2021
We have a city hall and police department transparency problem in Palo Alto that seems to be quietly but quickly expanding.

That’s because: City Manager Ed Shikada and City Attorney Molly Stump don’t particularly want the public to know what’s going on in city hall departments, including the police department, as they say in a recent report to the council’s Policies and Services Committee. By making an internal personnel problem public, there are problems, because, “discrimination, harassment and retaliation investigations can involve sensitive, embarrassing or upsetting incidents.”

They are not talking about these incidents affecting the public but rather hurting city employees and police officers. Yes, it seems that the manager and the attorney are there to protect city employees.

The council committee was discussing enlarging the scope of the investigations by its independent police auditing firm, the OIR group, headed by Michael Gennaco, who has conducted very thorough and fair investigations of the police department for years. At the meeting, while agreeing OIR has been with the city for a long time, Shikada warned that releasing too much investigative information to the public may have a “chilling effect” on employees including supervisors, according to a story in the Weekly by Gennady Sheyner. In the past, Gennaco’s reports which do become public, did not include the names of the individuals under investigation. The three council members on the committee wanted to expand Gennaco’s role.

Shikada and Stump said in their report that the dangers in releasing an independent police auditor (IPA) report might affect “witnesses from cooperating fully with investigators when their colleagues and supervisors may be implicated. These are the reasons that the City has not publicly reported on these matters to-date. (Italics mine.) While secondary review by the IPA offers some potential for additional insights, the risks to personal privacy and an effective and confidential human resources complaint system should be considered as well.”

In other words, the city manager and attorney are saying it is better to not allow Gennaco to investigate police conduct. They don’t want his findings released to the public.

I do.

The public needs to know about the conduct of police officers, and unusual conflicts between officers, especially racial problems.

Yet Shikada and Stump further said in their report, “If allegations, facts of the investigation and findings were to be publicly disclosed, individuals’ lives and careers could be impacted, and the effectiveness of the City’s complaint resolution system could be negatively impacted. The prospect of public reporting could discourage complainants from coming forward, or witnesses from cooperating fully with investigators when their colleagues and supervisors may be implicated. These are the reasons that the City has not publicly reported on these matters to-date.”

Interesting admission, particularly since the council has urged the police department and the city to become more transparency. Residents want to know what’s happening in their police department. But once HR is involved, personnel information never becomes public.

This limitation of OIR’s scope of investigations first occurred in 2019, when Shikada and Stump asked the council to approve changes in what OIR can look into. From now on, they said, all police personal conflicts (police officer v. police office) would go to HR for investigation. Two council members assured me at the time that these were minor changes, because Molly Stump told them they were. I argued they were major changes, because once in HR, a police dispute would never be made public That was about the time that the OIR was reviewing Capt. Zach Perron, who was accused of calling a black officer a “n…”. So, the OIR investigation was never released and we still don’t know anything more about this 2014 incident.

Needless to point out, this is OUR city, and the city manager, city attorney and city staff and police are ultimately working for us. We residents have said repeatedly we want more transparency in our city.

I did not see that idea addressed in the report from Shikada and Stump.

All this comes on the heels of the encryption problem. Police Chief Jonsen ordered all police radio transmissions to stop because they may contain private information. That issue has not been resolved. (See my previous blog on this.) And the police department still refuses to answer any questions from the press. A reporter is required to submit a question in writing and a response will occur within 24 hours. That’s the opposite of transparency.

Police radio transmissions have been with us for years – without any major problems. My husband wanted to watch “The Asphalt Jungle” Sunday night – a 1950s cops-and-robbers thriller. Near the end the police chief is showing some friends the four radio transmission channels in his office that is reporting live all the conversations between the dispatchers and the police. Then the chief switched each channel off one by one. See, the he said sadly, now the public gets no news at all.

And that’s my point, echoing an old movie dialogue. City officials can’t go around saying letting a police investigator analyze police internal problems can’t be allowed d because it will hurt city employees.

No, they have it backward. It will hurt the public if we have little or no knowledge of what’s happening at city hall – and chip away at our local democracy.


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Comments

 +   6 people like this
Posted by Rebecca Eisenberg, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Apr 20, 2021 at 10:34 pm

Rebecca Eisenberg is a registered user.

Thank you, Diana. I agree with every word you wrote and I hope that our City government start to take these concerns seriously. Molly Stump and Ed Shikada report to the City Council, who are responsible for all of their harmful and damaging decisions, including these decisions to withhold crucial information from the community. If our City Council does not require these public servants (whom we, the taxpayers, pay half a million dollars a year each!) to serve our communities, then we must replace the City Council.

(Obviously, I support that goal regardless. Transparency and accountability should not be political issues -- they are basic, obvious rights of the people.)


 +   5 people like this
Posted by Perspective, a resident of another community,
on Apr 21, 2021 at 9:12 am

Perspective is a registered user.

another transparency issue is the use of and release of video captured on police body cams.

first of all, the officer has the option of when to turn it on (or off).

secondly, the use of body cams are established by the individual police departments as mandated by their respective states. they are not required by federal law.

thirdly, the police departments reserve the right to release or withold police bodycam videos of certain incidents to the media or general public.

thus, the overall transparency issues involve more than just police radio encryptions.

the police have been known to lie (aka embellish) their reportage of wrongful shootings, unecessary beatings, and verbal harassments or to leave out key details of incidents to protect themselves from prosecution.

the best remedy in lieu of defunding the police departments is to fire 100% of the officers and then only rehire the ones with a clean record and zero complaints from the public.

this vetting can be done in stages based alphabetical order or seniority to ensure there are at least a few cops on duty.


 +   7 people like this
Posted by vmshadle, a resident of Meadow Park,
on Apr 21, 2021 at 1:23 pm

vmshadle is a registered user.

I agree. When you sign up to be a public servant, it's, well, public.

If you don't want to be accountable to the people to whom you are by definition accountable, that's a problem.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by jlanders, a resident of Barron Park,
on Apr 21, 2021 at 1:39 pm

jlanders is a registered user.

PAPD's Independent Police Auditor (IPA) - currently handled by Gennaco's OIR Group - does reviews and evaluations of PAPD's internal investigations. The IPA gets all of the associated material but does not carry out their own separate investigations. The department retains editorial control over the IPA's review.

California passed the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights (PSOPBR /POBR) in the 1970's protecting the privacy of police officers. While SB1421 recently removed and clarified some restrictions, these are the strictest police privacy laws in the country. The City is obligated to follow state law no mater who ultimately does the investigation.

In general, handling internal investigations in small police departments is challenging because so many operational roles overlap. Investigations get handled by the "next level up" staff. This works for Patrol Division and ISD (i.e. detectives). But, when supervisory staff get investigated this often requires pulling in resources outside the department. Using outside resources ensures fairness of an investigation.

In December, 2019 Chief Jonsen agreed to the public release of reports on personnel and human resource investigations. These have been included along with IPA's report to council. The report from March, 2021 contains only one incident. Council can decide if reviewing the small number investigations done outside of the PAPD is important enough to include in the next IPA contract.

Not sure how the Weekly can frame an argument blasting PAPD transparency while trashing Zach Perron for a dumb comment made over 7 years ago in the basement of the police station. Perron was responsible for bringing back the Basic Citizen's Academy, helped setting up the Advanced Citizen's Academy, set up and ran PAPD's Twitter account and wrote many press releases. A large number of Palo Alto residents hold a very positive view of Zach Perron and appreciate his willingness to step forward and work with the community.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Apr 21, 2021 at 4:05 pm

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

In a typical corporate setting HR issues are usually handled internally to protect all of the people involved. After review of the "facts" on the table some resolution is made - transfer person to some other division if no illegalities have occurred. If some illegal issue took place the person is fired. The dollar amount of the illegal action then determines the outcome for that person. There are many issues to consider - the company has an investment in the person for pension, savings plans, etc. All of those issue need closure. If a union is involved then that is another "involved agency' that needs to be resolved on the solution.
People who work for the state, county or city may belong to a union. It is a complicated set of issues to get to resolution. And yes it can be compromised if made public in the process and a whole tirade of invective is unleashed - as we have seen in many cities. The whole point here is to not create another set of actions in the process. But there has to be a satisfactory closure on any HR action.


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Apr 22, 2021 at 11:05 am

Online Name is a registered user.

Thank you! The city's lack of transparency is a major problem regarding the police and other issues like the Palo Alto Utilities' Dept. history of over-charging us $20,000,000 a year and then using OUR money to appeal the court ordered payments back to us.

Re the police, many of us have legitimate complaints about the police but are afraid to report them.

As Dave Price wrote earlier this week, "as a fiscal conservative" he believes cities need to get the police acts together to avoid paying out MILLIONS in legal settlements for excessive force complaints. I heartily agree.

It would be special if "our" City Manager and City Attorney remember that they are working for US and start doing their jobs FOR US.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Apr 22, 2021 at 1:04 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

Yesterday afternoon Middlefield Road was closed to traffic. On Nextdoor there were pictures of a car on its side and another in a tree.

Anyone who was delayed, rerouted or just inconvenienced by this, including those living nearby, would turn to the local newspaper to find out what happened. This sounds like it was a major event with multiple emergency vehicles racing across town to the scene.

Probably nobody told PA Weekly. Nothing mentioned today. Yet, everyone still wants to know, with compassion that nobody was hurt, and whether this was related to anything more sinister than a regular traffic accident. With the amount of emergency presence and a car on its side it sounds more like a serious collision rather than a fender bender.

This is the sort of reason we should be able to know what is going on. Journalists from the Weekly should have been able to find out about the incident and then do their journalistic stuff. We should have been able to look at the Weekly this morning and found out what happened.

The silence on this is deafening.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Apr 22, 2021 at 1:59 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Bystander, exactly. Recently at midnight I saw revolving cop car lights reflecting off the ceiling. A single cop car had blocked off the cross street in front of my house. Looking down the block, I saw another 5 police cars a block down and a few more another block down. all their lights were flashing. There were no ambulances or fire engines indicating a health emergency. No sirens.

Nothing in media, nothing in the police blotters.

Still wondering what happened to justify that type of massive police presence for an hour from midnight to one AM.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Jocelyn Dong, editor of the Palo Alto Weekly,
on Apr 22, 2021 at 2:51 pm

Jocelyn Dong is a registered user.

Thanks for your concerns, Bystander. We've got a reporter who is trying to get info on that accident from the city.

This is the kind of incident that we used to hear about in real-time before the police department decided to encrypt its radio transmissions at the beginning of the year. Now, no such real-time information comes from the PAPD.

As Diana has blogged about previously, the system by which the department responds to questions -- we complete an online form and wait for an officer to get back with the answers -- leaves much to be desired.

Reporter Sue Dremann submitted a request on April 5 asking for details on the burglaries at Rick's Rather Rick Ice Cream and Peninsula Creamery Dairy Store. She still hasn't gotten a response.

Similarly, the Daily Post reporters are not getting answers from PAPD to their inquiries, as they stated in a recent article. This is one reason that both of our news organizations, plus the Mercury News, have urged the city to work to solve the public-access problem that total encryption has created.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Miriam Peters, a resident of Professorville,
on Apr 22, 2021 at 6:39 pm

Miriam Peters is a registered user.

Civilian video accounts (via smartphones) are critical to ensure that any and all key details surrounding questionable police-related incidents are brought to light.

Had it not been for the teenager who captured the George Floyd murder on her cellphone, the incident could have easily been covered-up by the police department and it wouldn't be the first time.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Apr 22, 2021 at 9:38 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

@Jocelyn Dong, that's absolutely outrageous that the city would stonewall PAW and the Post. Besides writing to City Council, what can we citizens/taxpayers do to help push them to be more open and transparent?


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Apr 27, 2021 at 6:42 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

Still no word of what happened to cause 2 cars to end up on their side or in a tree and cause the closure of Middlefield Road.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Sue Dremann, Palo Alto Weekly staff writer,
on Apr 30, 2021 at 2:09 pm

Sue Dremann is a registered user.

Hi Bystander,

According to the Palo Alto police, the crash involved three vehicles. One car became involved after the other two collided. Neither driver of the two initial cars could recall how the crash occurred. Although the crash looked bad -- one car on its side and another into a tree -- no one was seriously injured and damage to the vehicles was apparently minor, police said.

The driver of the flipped car complained of minor pain and was transported to a hospital for evaluation. The car that hit the tree did so at slow speed. Thank you for letting us know about this crash. We are somewhat hampered without the ability to monitor radio traffic due to PAPD's encryption policy.


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