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Editorial: Why the secrecy in Menlo Park?

Recent requests by the Almanac for information about police department matters have produced some troubling responses from the city of Menlo Park. In the latest incident, the city denied a reporter's request for what should be publicly available statistics: How many currently serving police officers have been charged or convicted of criminal offenses? And how many have been fired during the past 10 years?

Reporter Sandy Brundage made it clear in her request to the city that she wasn't seeking any identifying information, which the city would be unable to provide legally because of laws protecting the privacy of public employees, particularly police officers. She also noted in her request that the city of San Jose maintains a public database that reports on a quarterly basis disciplinary actions and outcomes involving all city employees, including police officers.

Menlo Park's response? No. The request "would require the city to physically review individual records/personnel files and create documents that do not exist. The records themselves are confidential personnel information which we are required to maintain as such."

The request for statistics stemmed from the Almanac's investigation of a 2011 incident in which Menlo Park police officer Jeffrey Vasquez was caught in a motel room with a known prostitute. Although he was charged with solicitation by the Santa Clara County DA's office, the case was later dismissed.

After an internal affairs investigation, the city fired Officer Vasquez, but that action was overturned in binding arbitration.

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The story, reported by Ms. Brundage, raised serious questions about why it's so difficult to fire cops who break the law they swear to uphold. And it shed light on a system of confidentiality that protects rogue officers and those who perform below an acceptable standard of public service.

The city's latest refusal to release non-confidential information follows another recent struggle by the reporter to obtain police logs for a three-year period. The logs are released to the public on a daily basis. The city responded that its policy was to provide the public, upon request, only the most recent 30 days of the log, even though the police department keeps the documents for two years. Menlo Park released the logs only after a fight.

The Almanac isn't the only witness to the city's stonewalling. When Vicki Smothers reported a terrifying encounter to Menlo Park police in 2011, the department refused to give her a copy of the 911 call she placed. Ms. Smothers was legally entitled to that copy, as the state requires disclosure of witness statements and case reports to all parties in a case unless doing so harms another victim, a witness, or the investigation. The city attorney cited none of those exceptions in denying her request.

Whose interests are served when a public agency withholds information that legally should be available to anyone who asks for it? In an era when the public's trust in government is sinking ever lower, only tone-deaf public officials, or those with something to hide, will fight disclosure of non-confidential information.

As Menlo Park nears a decision on hiring a new police chief, we hope that a commitment to transparency and an understanding of the public's right to access information will be important criteria in that decision. The city should be serving as a model of transparency instead of a model of obfuscation.

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Editorial: Why the secrecy in Menlo Park?

Uploaded: Wed, Jan 30, 2013, 12:05 pm

Recent requests by the Almanac for information about police department matters have produced some troubling responses from the city of Menlo Park. In the latest incident, the city denied a reporter's request for what should be publicly available statistics: How many currently serving police officers have been charged or convicted of criminal offenses? And how many have been fired during the past 10 years?

Reporter Sandy Brundage made it clear in her request to the city that she wasn't seeking any identifying information, which the city would be unable to provide legally because of laws protecting the privacy of public employees, particularly police officers. She also noted in her request that the city of San Jose maintains a public database that reports on a quarterly basis disciplinary actions and outcomes involving all city employees, including police officers.

Menlo Park's response? No. The request "would require the city to physically review individual records/personnel files and create documents that do not exist. The records themselves are confidential personnel information which we are required to maintain as such."

The request for statistics stemmed from the Almanac's investigation of a 2011 incident in which Menlo Park police officer Jeffrey Vasquez was caught in a motel room with a known prostitute. Although he was charged with solicitation by the Santa Clara County DA's office, the case was later dismissed.

After an internal affairs investigation, the city fired Officer Vasquez, but that action was overturned in binding arbitration.

The story, reported by Ms. Brundage, raised serious questions about why it's so difficult to fire cops who break the law they swear to uphold. And it shed light on a system of confidentiality that protects rogue officers and those who perform below an acceptable standard of public service.

The city's latest refusal to release non-confidential information follows another recent struggle by the reporter to obtain police logs for a three-year period. The logs are released to the public on a daily basis. The city responded that its policy was to provide the public, upon request, only the most recent 30 days of the log, even though the police department keeps the documents for two years. Menlo Park released the logs only after a fight.

The Almanac isn't the only witness to the city's stonewalling. When Vicki Smothers reported a terrifying encounter to Menlo Park police in 2011, the department refused to give her a copy of the 911 call she placed. Ms. Smothers was legally entitled to that copy, as the state requires disclosure of witness statements and case reports to all parties in a case unless doing so harms another victim, a witness, or the investigation. The city attorney cited none of those exceptions in denying her request.

Whose interests are served when a public agency withholds information that legally should be available to anyone who asks for it? In an era when the public's trust in government is sinking ever lower, only tone-deaf public officials, or those with something to hide, will fight disclosure of non-confidential information.

As Menlo Park nears a decision on hiring a new police chief, we hope that a commitment to transparency and an understanding of the public's right to access information will be important criteria in that decision. The city should be serving as a model of transparency instead of a model of obfuscation.

Comments

Wayne Martin
Fairmeadow
on Jan 30, 2013 at 1:11 pm
Wayne Martin, Fairmeadow
on Jan 30, 2013 at 1:11 pm
Like this comment


City of San Jose Quarterly Employee Discipline Report:
Web Link

A few years ago, the City of San Jose invested a citizens’ commission with the task of investigating problems with the City’s “openness”. This resulted in a so-called Sunshine Commission:

Web Link

A goodly number of the Commissions suggestions were adopted by the SJ Government.

It’s a shame every local government does not have the commitment to openness that San Jose does.


Hmm
Barron Park
on Jan 30, 2013 at 2:26 pm
Hmm, Barron Park
on Jan 30, 2013 at 2:26 pm
Like this comment

So its unclear. Was the reporter legally entitled to the information she was requesting? If the answer is no, her gripe is nullified.
Maybe that's why they inserted a seemingly non-connected issue where someone was denied info they apparently were legally entitled to...a story that happened 2 yrs ago.
Simple question to the reporter: Were you LEGALLY entitled to be provided the info you requested?


Simple answer
Evergreen Park
on Jan 30, 2013 at 2:42 pm
Simple answer, Evergreen Park
on Jan 30, 2013 at 2:42 pm
Like this comment

I'm not the reporter in question, but I can give Hmmm a simple answer to his/her simple question: Yes, anyone would be legally entitled to the information she was requesting.

Read carefully. The piece says that "she wasn't seeking any identifying information, which the city would be unable to provide legally because of laws protecting the privacy of public employees, particularly police officers. She also noted in her request that the city of San Jose maintains a public database that reports on a quarterly basis disciplinary actions and outcomes involving all city employees, including police officers."

There's an implicit question in the second sentence in that paragraph: If the city of San Jose understands that this is public information v. confidential information, what's Menlo Park's problem?


OK then
Barron Park
on Jan 30, 2013 at 2:47 pm
OK then, Barron Park
on Jan 30, 2013 at 2:47 pm
Like this comment

If denied a legal request for information, will the Almanac sue? Why not? It sounds like they have standing to do so. If not the Almanac, then who? Lets do more than complain in the paper if laws are being ignored.


Wassup
Midtown
on Jan 30, 2013 at 3:24 pm
Wassup, Midtown
on Jan 30, 2013 at 3:24 pm
Like this comment

They are secretive in Los Altos, too, when one of their own is caught in a misdeed. remember the cop who tail ended a car parked at a stoplight? he was chatting on his cell phone.


Wassup
Midtown
on Jan 30, 2013 at 3:24 pm
Wassup, Midtown
on Jan 30, 2013 at 3:24 pm
Like this comment

They are secretive in Los Altos, too, when one of their own is caught in a misdeed. remember the cop who tail ended a car parked at a stoplight? he was chatting on his cell phone.


Paul Blart
Greater Miranda
on Jan 31, 2013 at 5:12 am
Paul Blart, Greater Miranda
on Jan 31, 2013 at 5:12 am
Like this comment

Im sad to say this. Maybe Menlo Park needs to be sued for with holding information from the press and public. Seems like this is a ongoing issue.


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