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.