Editorial: When local government leaders refuse to answer questions, they become their own worst enemies

Few government actions are as corrosive to democracy as refusing to comment when things go wrong

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.


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38 people like this
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 20, 2019 at 5:43 am

The City Council has oversight over the city manager. Where is the City Council on this?

31 people like this
Posted by A Moral Compass
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 20, 2019 at 7:08 am

A Moral Compass is a registered user.

The City Manager & the respective public safety agency officials have an ethical & professional responsibility to keep the citizens of Palo Alto adequately informed of all municipal measures/incidents directly related to their paid duties as city administrators.

It is my understanding that the CPA recently hired a city spokesperson to provide public information on behalf of these administrators. If they are unable (or unwilling) to disseminate pertinent city-related information to the residents of the community, it should be her responsibility/role to fulfill this obligation.

Perhaps there is a legal issue/concern behind this incident & the subsequent 'silent treatment' by Shikada & upper municipal management. Failure to provide adequate & comprehensive response to a phone-in public safety concern/matter could
provide grounds for a civil lawsuit & bad PR.

Covering-up certain matters only makes them & the City of Palo Alto look bad in the public eye & media requests should always be acknowledged unless the City Attorney is advising them not to which case, something is very wrong with the overall picture.

43 people like this
Posted by Sally
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 20, 2019 at 8:00 am

Yes, "the truth will set you free" isn't quite the motto of any of our public agencies.

They are afraid of lawsuits, of course. Admitting wrongdoing isn't easy. Yet the "keep quiet" approach is disastrous not only because it undermines the essential roles of our public offices and institutions, but also because it just doesn't work. It evokes strong distrust and moral outrage. By behaving as adversaries, we create adversaries. This op-ed is so needed right now for us in Palo Alto, because our school and government officials are, unintentionally, creating tempest after tempest. They are afraid to work openly, collaboratively, and diligently with their citizens to solve problems. We never deescalate, we bunker. Let's start rebuilding this trust.

12 people like this
Posted by Reality Check
a resident of University South
on Sep 20, 2019 at 12:09 pm

As much as I dislike Shikada and his continued wishy-washiness, I think it's important to note that both he and the City Attorney are charged with protecting the interests of the City, with a capital "C." The City consists of all of it's taxpayers, who will be on the hook for any misconduct by police officers and other City officials. They are wise to keep tight lips until they need to answer questions in court. Anyone who is threatened with a lawsuit should know that it's best to keep quiet.

13 people like this
Posted by Local
a resident of another community
on Sep 20, 2019 at 12:19 pm

Has it occurred to the Editorial Board that perhaps a lawsuit is pending over this episode, and perhaps Mr. Shikada doesn't want to comment (or have all of his employees comment) on the subject of pending litigation?

And do you really think no one from the City has apologized to this woman yet??

Let's dial the indignation back a bit, shall we? Just because you couldn't get everyone involved to sit down for an interview with you immediately does not make this the scandal of the century.

16 people like this
Posted by Cover up culture
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 20, 2019 at 12:47 pm

I think what needs to be said is that Ed Shikada and all of the City Council and apparatus, including the City Attorney, seem to see it as their duty to spend our taxpayer dollars looking out for city public employees, including themselves, who are supposed to be providing services, rather than looking out for residents and taxpayers who are paying for the services. Oh no..... If the police, dispatcher or whomever in city employ makes an error, or breaks the law, well obviously it is the city's duty to just obfuscate, deny, and cover up for them, the police, the dispatcher, the fire fighter, the public employee, or whomever, and to make sure that no one will get disciplined or possibly lose some pay or have a letter put in their personnel file, or god forbid anyone lose their well compensated city job with great benefits over their own wrongdoing and be held accountable. Heck no!!! After all, it is the provider of these services that comes first in the hierarchy, not the consumer of such services, the residents, who happen to pay for them. We have to look out for the providers of services, of course, of course, of course, in this upside down, corrupt, unionized public employee world at the City. It's the same at the school district, which violates the public records law routinely and just recently engaged in a big coverup designed to save administrator's jobs who broke the law --- while using a taxpayer financed student publication to do it to boot! Well done!

13 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 20, 2019 at 1:28 pm

Posted by Reality Check, a resident of University South

>> They are wise to keep tight lips until they need to answer questions in court. Anyone who is threatened with a lawsuit should know that it's best to keep quiet.

I disagree. This shouldn't be about what the City can get away with. The City should seek to make anyone injured by action or inaction "whole", as, indeed, should you or I if we are at fault in a private matter. Yes, I understand that while an investigation is going on, too much talking can muddy the waters, but, the City should have apologized at once, and, investigated, and, promised to conduct a real inquiry. Then, lessons learned, and, new protocols to be followed. Instead, we have silence, which is a message in itself. As a citizen, I want the city to accept its responsibility. Yes, it will cost me as a taxpayer.

8 people like this
Posted by Me Too
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 21, 2019 at 1:33 am

"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."

""Do you want to go to the hospital or do you want to see a psychiatrist?" Clausen asked.
"No no no no no no no. Oh my god," the woman said.

"What do you need? Tell me what you need," Clausen said as the woman became more panicked and struggled for words.

"Here is what I need. I need — I need — I need helple."

"Have you had anything to drink today?" Clausen replied.”

Can you pinpoint the precise moment in which the woman, who was seizing and afraid she was going to die, experiences the humiliating and terrifying realization that she is being treated as an object not an equal human being who needs urgent help? This is the experience of bias against millions of women in all kinds of medical and emergency response situations.

In Dr. Jody Heymann’s book “Equal Partners”, the Harvard Medical School and Kennedy School of Government graduate describes an experience very much like this when she, too, had a seizure because of an undiagnosed brain tumor. Only in her case, the paramedics accused her of being on drugs.

Yes, there needs to be a frank, open, and honest examination of what went wrong. We the public need to witness a spirit of drive to improve constantly by fixing mistakes, and where there has been a drive to CYA, we must eliminate those influences from our departments for everyone’s safety.

But make no mistake, the snap judgments about women played a role here. For many women who have suffered serious medical conditions, this kind of dehumanizing, dangerous treatment is all too familiar. It causes such humiliation, trauma, and powerlessness, I have heard women describe these situations like assaults. Of course it’s excruciating to watch, we know the outcome. But what if the woman had a silent heart attack and the paramedics didn’t see what was wrong on the way to the hospital? The woman would have been “treated” to more humiliation similar to the above.

This article is spot on in its call for the City to care about correcting mistakes. But as a progressive City, we should also care about our vulnerability to future incidents because of the serious bias against women, especially older women.

4 people like this
Posted by Shikada is cautious
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 21, 2019 at 10:20 am

[Post removed.]

12 people like this
Posted by Me Too As Well
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 21, 2019 at 1:17 pm

"....the snap judgments about women played a role here. For many women who have suffered serious medical conditions, this kind of dehumanizing, dangerous treatment is all too familiar."

And the irony/tragedy is that Officer Claussen is a WOMAN as well & should have been more 'dialed-in' to the situation (unless she is simply acquiescing to standard PAPD male officer weighted questioning procedures).

8 people like this
Posted by Bob Wenzlau
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 21, 2019 at 4:41 pm

Bob Wenzlau is a registered user.

The tone of this coverage and the opinion piece rub me the wrong way.

The individuals that work in our city government are tremendous. The are not above reproach, but as I read this piling on in the coverage, I wonder if we have lost our perspective and grace. My engagement with the city is through community service, and I work with the folks at City Hall on a weekly basis. They are awesome. Our new fire chief has climbed to his position through the city ranks, and also I have watched our city manager evolve a municipal strategy that is more practical and tactical. The staff are busy. They make mistakes also.

The article builds a different view, and one that is false. My hunch is that the events the coverage reviews have obvious corrective actions, and they will be taken. However, the coverage takes no hostages, and is too aggressive. The Weekly backs staff into a corner, and I am at a loss as to why.

I empathize for the person whose care was bungled. But I don't find the coverage proportional to the shortcomings in service.

I hope the Weekly and community shift their energy to more important topics, and allow the emergency response system to make the obvious corrective actions. I frankly doubt this will happen again, but of course we can always do better.

17 people like this
Posted by Helen Johnson
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 21, 2019 at 5:03 pm

Re Bob Wenzlau's comment. I understand but disagree. I think what's important is the poor performance of both the police and fire departments in ways that indicate bigger issues. The violation of policy was evidently accepted, and probably expected, by both junior and senior staff members. I doubt that many of them even knew of the policies they were violating. That indicates a lax management practice across the organization.

Take the scene itself. What were the fire and EMT responders doing while they were waiting, and while the police officer was bungling through an encounter with a woman in obvious distress? Why did they not have a sense of professional responsibility to resist waiting and failing to deliver aid?

I'm sure Jonsen and Blackshire are pleasant men. What seems likely from this story is that they are poor leaders and managers.

1 person likes this
Posted by Truth
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 22, 2019 at 1:46 am

I don't understand how Chief Jonsen is responsible for two employees who made poor decisions, he is not a puppeteer. He is probably re-evaluating the rules about making the EMTs wait. The rule was obviously made for a reason, perhaps a psych case charged a fireman and hurt him in the past. It makes sense that law enforcement should clear the scene for safety first. It is a sad story but the woman survived and it was a lesson for all.
Stop signs and traffic signals are installed after deaths and accidents, rules are made or changed based upon experience. People, life is not perfect, quit throwing daggers and move on with your lives.

23 people like this
Posted by Medical emergencies - ALL
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 22, 2019 at 8:59 am

Copied from another thread:

Let's be clear. This was OBVIOUSLY a MEDICAL emergency.
The police are NOT qualified to diagnose medical conditions. They can assess public safety concerns. Very quickly it would have be clear that there was NO public safety issue.

This woman had serious medical symptoms: panic, difficulty speaking, confusion, collapse on the ground, and she requested 911 and to be taken to a hospital.

It DOES NOT MATTER if the cause of these symptoms is a stroke, a seizure, a drug or alcohol overdose, or an underlying psychological condition. At that moment, it was a MEDICAL emergency and a MEDICAL professional was desperately needed to diagnose and treat this woman.

The BRAIN is a part of your BODY. If your brain is mis-functioning for WHATEVER reason, that is a medical emergency and requires medical assistance.
The police needed to do a very fast assessment for public safety and then get out of the way so trained medical professionals (EMTs) could do their job.

10 people like this
Posted by Truth
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 22, 2019 at 9:54 am

The officers should have been able to evaluate the scene faster if indeed, the article is correct, but we are all Monday Morning Quarterbacks. Chief Jonsen is not a puppeteer, he cannot control everything his employees do. The staging makes sense and was probably created because there was an incidence where non-law enforcement was endangered. He is probably re-evaluating the staging or at least re-training or advising officers. Just as laws are written because of an incident, this is a learning experience for PAPD. Fortunately, the woman survived but surely, it was psychologically traumatic and could lead to PTSD, very unfortunate. Life is not fair.

Like this comment
Posted by Truth
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 22, 2019 at 10:00 am

I see my double posting. It didn't appear online last night.

12 people like this
Posted by Helen Johnson
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 22, 2019 at 10:23 am

Reading the article, no one from dispatchers to police officers to fire personnel knew, or at least cared to follow, the current policy about when and how to stage the emergency responders and wait for police. So the learning to do is not how to change the policy. It's about how these functions became so badly managed that the policy was universally ignored. That's why it's an issue about the quality of management.

Good management isn't about being a "puppeteer." It's about leading, training and setting expectations so that people know how they are supposed to behave. On that measure, Jonsen and Blackshire seem to be performing poorly.

2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 22, 2019 at 11:31 am

Resident is a registered user.

As the articles and others have pointed out, there appear to have been multiple failures to follow current systems and procedures by front line personnel, rather than a lack of appropriate policies and procedures. The city manager stated that additional training has been put in place. I hope and assume these will be adequate to prevent a repeat of the cluster of serious errors.
The editorial draws attention to equally disturbing actions by the city attorney and city manager. That is that they appear to have deliberately and repeatedly defied their legal obligations to provide the public records to the Weekly They claimed an exemption for “investigations” but have not asserted nor shared of any actual investigation. These are our two highest city officers who have a duty to serve the public in addition to narrowly serving the city government. They report to our representatives, the city council who owe us accountability on why records are not being provided.
Interestingly, the mid year reviews for these officers were just dropped from a recent council agenda. Why?

12 people like this
Posted by Bureaucratic BS
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 22, 2019 at 1:17 pm

NO EXCUSES. The City Administrators & their respective departments are to be held to a higher authority, responsibility & scrutiny.

That is the only way for them to justify their exorbitant tax-payer supported salaries & generous CALPers retirement packages.

If they cannot perform their jobs at the highest levels OR are unwilling to acknowledge their oversights...REPLACE THEM.

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