The Palo Alto City Council surprised many police watchdogs in December 2019, when it abruptly moved to strip away the independent police auditor's power to investigate internal complaints by officers against their colleagues.
Now, with new council members in place, the topic of police reform at the center of the national agenda and the local department facing increased scrutiny over numerous clams of police brutality, the council is preparing to undo that action. On Tuesday, the council's Policy and Services Committee took an early step in that effort when it unanimously recommended revising the scope of the auditing firm, OIR Group, to empower it to review incidents that involve harassment, retaliation and discrimination by members of the Police Department.
The council's 2019 decision came just as OIR Group was reviewing a 2014 incident in which a police supervisor, Capt. Zack Perron, purportedly told a joke with a racist slur in the presence of a Black officer. By revising the auditor's scope and formally relegating all oversight of internal conflicts to the Human Resources Department, the council effectively ensured that OIR Group's review of how the Police Department dealt with the 2014 incident was never publicly released.
But with the council now advancing a broad plan to improve police accountability and promote racial equity, the three council members on the committee — Chair Lydia Kou, Greer Stone and Greg Tanaka — all agreed that it's time to reconsider the 2019 decision. Stone pointed to the high number of recent incidents of police misconduct across the nation, which he argued serve as a reminder of the importance of transparency in law enforcement.
"I think it's clear we're at a moment in our nation's history where public mistrust of law enforcement is at a high point," said Stone, who made the motion to restore the auditor's scope over internal complaints.
"When we put our trust in people who carry a gun and a badge under the authority of law, there needs to be heightened scrutiny. … When that trust is broken between the police and the people they are sworn to protect, the system fails."
City Manager Ed Shikada and City Attorney Molly Stump, who had jointly recommended the policy revision in 2019, advised council members to ensure that any new policies protect the confidentiality of the accused party, the complainant and witnesses (the OIR Group, as a rule, does not publish the names of any of the parties). Shikada suggested Tuesday that releasing too much information to the public may have a "chilling effect" on employees, including on supervisors.
"So it's clearly a balancing act," Shikada said. "While always wanting to respect and protect the rights of anyone who feels they are a victim, we also know there are situations in which claims can be raised many, many times."
A new report, jointly submitted by the offices of the city manager and the city attorney, further underscores some of the drawbacks of making personnel investigations public.
"Discrimination, harassment and retaliation investigations can involve sensitive, embarrassing or upsetting incidents," the report states. "They often involve multiple employees or a work unit. Emotions, perceptions, and experiences can be strongly felt and highly personal."
The report noted that results of investigations and findings are normally kept confidential to "safeguard the privacy of everyone involved."
"This is critical to encouraging employees to come forward with their concerns and encouraging witnesses to speak frankly and fully with investigators," the report states.
Some residents pushed back against the 2019 move and supported broadening the auditor's mandate. Aram James, a frequent critic of the Police Department, was among them. In some cases, he argued, internal incidents within the department can have significant public ramifications. By reducing the auditor's power in December 2019, the city effectively engaged in a coverup of the complaint against Perron, he said.
"Any time there is an attack by a white officer allegedly on a black officer who is driven from the department, this is a quintessentially public matter," James said. "We need to be certain that we put back (into the auditor's scope) the internal matters of this nature."
Barron Park resident Winter Dellenbach also urged the council to restore the auditor's oversight of internal police complaints. She noted that in the 15 years that the OIR Group has been working with the city, it has never breached confidentiality rules. She contrasted the auditor's publicly available reports with the approach taken by the Human Resources Department, which she likened to "a total blackout with no information or accountability to the City Council or the public."
"This is not how the Palo Alto Police Department is going to build trust with the city, or the public," Dellenbach said.
The committee's recommendation follows a series of other changes that the city has already made to OIR Group's contract. In November, the council agreed that the auditor should review all police use-of-force incidents that result in injury requiring medical attention, including incidents in which an officer used a baton, a chemical agent, a Taser, a less-lethal projectile or a K-9.