Palo Alto City Manager Ed Shikada won't talk with us. At his direction, neither will police Chief Bob Jonsen, fire Chief Geo Blackshire or any other city employee. Which means, by extension, they won't talk to you, the citizens of Palo Alto, either.
It's not because of something we did, incorrect reporting or any grudge against the Palo Alto Weekly. It's because they don't have good answers for the questions we are asking.
A critical test for how well a public agency is performing is how it manages problems, mistakes, criticism and crises, and how it communicates about them with the public. That is especially true when it involves the three most basic and essential functions of local government — law enforcement, fire protection and emergency medical services. Residents need to have confidence that when they call 911 in an emergency, they'll get a prompt and professional response. Sometimes, as detailed in today's cover story, life-threatening mistakes happen and the public is entitled to a full explanation from the public officials who work for them.
A 54-year-old Palo Alto woman was the victim in early June of a terrifying experience when she sought paramedics for what she thought was a stroke (it was later diagnosed as a seizure caused by a brain tumor). Home alone midday, she realized something was happening to her. She began seeing double and was dizzy and disoriented. Confused about how to use her phone, she rushed outside toward the sound of neighbor children shooting baskets. Stuttering, she asked the boys to call 911 and said she thought she was going to die.
It was the type of 911 call that dispatchers are trained to handle. The woman had no reason to doubt paramedics wouldn't be there within minutes. It is one of the benefits of living in Palo Alto that you hope you'll never need to use.
The 911 dispatcher immediately got fire department units rolling to the location. Then she asked an odd question of the 14-year-old, who called 911: "Do you think it's a medical issue or is she having some type of psychological issue?" The boy hesitantly responded, "It seems psychological to me, but I am not the one to make a decision on that."
With that, the dispatcher concluded the call should be treated as a "5150" (a psychiatric crisis) and directed the responding fire units to "stage" around the corner from the woman's house and wait for police to respond and assess whether there was any danger to fire personnel. Paramedics arrived in less than five minutes but were kept from the woman for almost 15 more minutes while two police officers, dispatched on a non-emergency basis, responded.
A Weekly investigation of the incident, aided by records, dispatch recordings and police body cam footage provided by the woman, who had to engage an attorney to obtain them from the city, found that the dispatcher violated city policy regarding the staging of fire and medical responders but that the police officers compounded the problem and also violated numerous department polices. Their treatment of the woman, documented in the body cam footage, is excruciating to watch as the officer attempted for five minutes to lead the woman to say she needed psychiatric help.
As improper as the actions by police were in this case, the response of Shikada, City Attorney Molly Stump and senior city staff is equally disturbing. Stump's office initially refused requests made by both the family and the Weekly for various records, citing an exception in the Public Records Act for "investigative" records, an assertion that was clearly wrong legally and an attempt to avoid public scrutiny.
Then Shikada informed the Weekly that he would not permit any city employees or managers to be interviewed about the incident, even though the woman gave her permission. Over the next two weeks, Shikada changed his mind several times about whether he would agree to answer questions or allow other city staff to be interviewed. He eventually decided to do neither. He provided a short statement that said policies were being "reinforced" and some trainings had taken place.
Shikada is just nine months into his tenure as city manager, but his decision to offer no explanation or details to the public and his refusal to answer questions undermines trust and confidence in city staff and disrespects the public's right to know about mistakes made and how they are corrected.
It's not too late, Mr. Shikada, to make an apology to the woman and her family and announce in detail what the city has learned from this incident so it will not recur.