Facing public pressure for more police accountability, the Palo Alto City Council agreed on Monday to empower the city's independent police auditor to investigate more incidents and to explore a new program that would shift some calls away from armed officers and toward mental health professionals.
In a wide-ranging discussion about the city's efforts to promote race and equity, the council generally agreed that it's time to expand the scope of OIR Group, the Los Angeles-based auditor that has been reviewing all police shootings, Taser deployments and citizen complaints since 2008. The auditor has also traditionally reviewed internal complaints made by officers against their colleagues, though the council decided in December to remove this duty from the auditor's scope, thus shielding these complaints from public disclosures.
The December action left Palo Alto as the only city that the OIR Group works with that explicitly excludes internal complaints from the scope, auditor Michael Gennaco told the council in September. The city made the change just as Gennaco was preparing to release a review of a 2014 incident in which a white police supervisor used a racial slur when talking to a Black officer.
The Monday vote does not restore the auditor's prior scope. Rather, it directs its Policy and Services Committee to consider returning to the auditor's oversight internal complaints related to harassment, discrimination or retaliation. It will be up to the committee to decide what the bar should be for triggering an auditor's review.
Vice Mayor Tom DuBois and Council member Lydia Kou supported going further and giving the auditor the power to oversee internal complaints that result in city investigations of uniformed officers. Others, including council members Eric Filseth and Alison Cormack, felt that this mandate is too broad. Cormack suggested limiting oversight to complaints that result in officer discipline.
The council has seen some pushback after its December decision. Numerous community activists, including Pat Burt and Greer Stone (both of whom were elected to the council on Nov. 3), have advocated for reversing the December action. Some speakers at Monday's meeting also urged the council to restore the auditor's power to review internal complaints. Winter Dellenbach, a Barron Park resident and police watchdog, encouraged the council to get internal police investigations "out of the dark cave of HR (human resources)" and back into the purview of the independent police auditor.
"It is completely inappropriate and he needs to have the oversight he has always had over internal complaints in the PAPD since 2008," Dellenbach said.
While the council did not reach a decision about internal complaints, members were more unified about expanding the scope of the auditor to include a wider range of incidents that involve the use of force. The council agreed that the auditor should look at all cases where an officer used a baton, a chemical agent, a Taser, a less-lethal projectile or a canine, as well as any cases that involve injuries that require treatment beyond "minor medical treatment in the field." The council also unanimously agreed to hold meetings with the police auditor twice a year.
The vote to expand the auditor's scope to include these incidents was one of more than a dozen actions that the council approved on Monday. Most of these pertain to actions that the Police Department and the council are already undertaking, including a bid to join Santa Clara County's Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT), which partners a mental health professional with a police officer for certain responses.
The department has been trying for months to join the program, with little success so far. Police Chief Bob Jonsen couldn't give a timeline for when the city could be partnering with the county on such a program. The county is currently in the process of hiring clinicians, though the hiring process has proven to be "more a challenge than expected," City Manager Ed Shikada wrote in a report.
Even if that program is implemented, the clinician would only work with the department for part of the week, Jonsen said.
"In a perfect world, it would be 24 hours, seven days a week," Jonsen said. "But that's just a staffing model on both sides. I don't think we'll get there. "I think a more realistic model would be four times a week. And we'd program that for most intensive time, depending on the calls for service."
The lack of certainty about county resources has spurred the council to consider hiring someone locally to help police officers respond to medical calls. DuBois suggested that if the county doesn't assign a PERT professional to Palo Alto in the next six months, the city should pursue creating a program like CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On the Streets), which is in place in Eugene, Oregon, and which directs calls pertaining to homelessness, mental health and substance use to unarmed civilians with expertise in mental health.
"I understand it's going to cost us money, but I'm a little worried that we're going to pass this tonight, feel good about it, and if nothing ever happens, the county never assigns somebody, it just kind of disappears," DuBois said of the PERT effort.
Shikada, however, cautioned against moving too fast on pursuing a local model for mental health treatment. The city, he noted, has no expertise in this area.
"I'd express some apprehension — and I think appropriate apprehension — about us taking on a profession that we're not in today, as it relates to behavioral health," Shikada said. "That is the primary reason why we'd really like to understand what we can accomplish with the county before we were to pursue an independent model."
The council also directed staff to expedite the rollout of the Police Department's new records management system; to resume annual data collection and analysis of police contact data; and to conduct a demographic assessment of the city's workforce as part of an effort to encourage equity and diversity.