The lack of transparency in the Palo Alto Police Department is increasing month by month, now in a worrisome way.
For the past two-plus years, the City Council has been calling for a more transparent police department. There are nods of agreement from Chief Robert Jonsen, but, as a member of the public, I feel things are getting worse, not better.
My concern is based on several issues involving the department over the past few years:
• Police Sgt. Wayne Benitez in February 2018 was arresting a man, Gustavo Alvarez, at the Buena Vista mobile home park. He had handcuffed Alvarez on his car hood, then banged his face into the car's windshield, saying, "You think you're a tough guy, huh?" In his police report, Benitez said there was no violence other than putting on handcuffs — his slamming the man's face was not reported. A few other officers were on the scene.
• Benitez's anger eruptions were well known within the force (he was nicknamed "The Fuse"). Jonsen said he was not aware of the anger issue, nor of the nickname. The video of the slamming incident was from a camera outside of Alvarez's apartment. It was revealed by Alvarez's attorney at the 2019 settlement trial. It was not released by the police department. Alvarez was awarded $572,0000, paid by the city. To his credit, Jonsen did ask the district attorney's office to get involved in the case. The DA charged Benitez with misdemeanors for assault and lying on his report. He left the department and is now out on bail release awaiting trial.
• About two years ago, a policy was proposed by City Attorney Mollie Stump and first adopted by the council — and then rescinded — to hand over all internal police-to-police conflict issues to the city's human resources department, where cases immediately become a personnel issue and disappear from public view, oftentimes with the public not knowing what the final outcome was. The council was told these changes were minor, but it's major if police conflict investigations go to HR, not to outside investigators. The public complained, and the council changed its mind.
• In October 2020, the state's Department of Justice issued a memo on "police encryption." The memo said the ID of the individual who is stopped by police must be protected, either by eliminating public transmission of all police on-the-job interactions with the police dispatch or by finding another way to hide the identity from the public. Jonsen quickly adopted full encryption of dispatch transmissions, without knowledge or approval of the council, in January 2021. People can no longer find out through these customary radio transmissions anything about a murder, arrest, storm damage, a serious fire in town, a major traffic accident, etc. Jonsen told the council on a couple of occasions that he had searched but found no solution. Yet the California Highway Patrol found a way — it sends private info like date of birth, name, address and driver's license number to dispatch by phone, with all other police-dispatch conversations continuing through radio transmissions, as has occurred for the past 70 years.
• Early in 2021, Jonsen also issued a notice that said reporters can no longer talk with police officers nor the chief. Jonsen occasionally sends out memos to reporters who submit a question, promising a response within the next 24 hours, and if a reporter has a follow-up question, it must be submitted on a special form resulting in another potential 24-hour wait. That certainly is a delayed way for the press to get police news to the public! Jonsen has agreed to hire a police information officer, which will help.
• Just weeks ago, we learned in the press about text messages that were sent after the 2018 car windshield incident. Agent Thomas DeStefano, who was at the scene, texted Officer Thomas Mulvaney saying, "You missed out — The Fuse was lit tonight." That text conversation never went public, but it should have, and Jonsen should have known about it. Police supervision is critical since police can arrest anyone anytime and because police frequently, accidentally, carelessly or deliberately (George Floyd) kill people.
• The city has a contract with Michael Gennaco, head of the OIR Group, which has served as the independent outside police auditor for several years. In the process of auditing police work, Gennaco found problems in the department. Then a couple of limitations were put on him (i.e., all police-to-police issues go directly to the city's HR department). The public got angry; the council listened, and ended up expanding Gennaco's work.
• However, in delving into the 2018 issue, Gennaco said he still, in late December 2021, had not received from Jonsen all the documents he needed from the incident. So, the Benitez case will not be included in his next report. How long does it take to get information on a police assault issue?
My conclusions? There are several problems in the Palo Alto Police Department, particularly lack of transparency. The department has closed off ways to get information to the public. Though police departments in the state are known for their reluctance to release information, that doesn't make the opaqueness right. We, the public, have a right to know.
This is an important issue facing Palo Alto. How can we trust the chief to tell us what is happening in our town when there is a deliberate blind being pulled down seemingly to cover up police problems?
I wonder if department staff, including the chief, want to keep things quiet so it looks to the public that we have great police officers? Or, is there less transparency because the police simply want to protect each other?
I think the council needs to carefully monitor what the department is withholding and make policy changes as needed. I know Gennaco can be a big help to the council — and I hope his work continues to expand.
Note: Most of this information came from the Palo Alto Weekly, the Palo Alto Daily Post, conversations with a District Attorney's Office staff member and Michael Gennaco, as well as my own tracking of police incidents over the past couple of years.