Palo Alto looks to restore police auditor's power to review internal complaints | April 16, 2021 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 16, 2021

Palo Alto looks to restore police auditor's power to review internal complaints

City Council's Policy and Service Committee votes to expand the scope of OIR Group

by Gennady Sheyner

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 claims of police brutality, the council is preparing to undo that action. On Tuesday, the council's Policy and Services Committee took an early step when it unanimously recommended revising the scope of the police 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. Zach 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.

Email Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner at [email protected]


Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 14, 2021 at 10:53 am

Online Name is a registered user.

Good for THIS council and shame on the previous one that aided and abetted the city's reduction of transparency on this and other issues. ! The police blotter dramatically understates crime and the encryption issue is an odd one.

And Just yesterday the Mountain View police delayed asking people's help in identifying the suspect who shot at 2 teenagers near Castro for a full day because they didn't want to alert the suspect they were looking for him! Good luck with that!

Posted by Duveneck neighbor
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 14, 2021 at 11:10 am

Duveneck neighbor is a registered user.

The City Manager and City Attorney claim that the privacy rights of officers exceeds the rights of victims and of the public to oversee that law enforcement, and the entire justice system, are behaving according to not just the law, but according to community moral and ethical standards.

This claim is unsubstantiated. CM Shikada is quoted, "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." The CM offers this assertion as 'evidence' for the restricted public and OIR view of police, law enforcement, and justice system behaviors.

Yet, the linked report, above, includes only further assertions, presented without proof or quantitative evidence. And, given the community's profound distrust in the capability of the CM, and of the CA, their assertions of the necessity for the December 2019 OIR contract changes cannot be given any credence whatsoever.

The taxpayers of this community have spent millions of dollars so that the status quo of our system of 'justice' can be preserved. Time and again, however, when behaviors are finally brought to public view, frequently through PAW reporting, the public sees plainly that the tactics, technology, and training of our police fall short of our collective aspiration. And, we see the PD Chief, the CM, the CA, the medical examiner, the DA, and the POA all acting to preserve their entitled status quo.

Enough. The Council must act. The system must be changed. There can be no more excuses.

And, I'm not interested in blame or recrimination, either; we the people are ultimately responsible.

We are all complicit. We are all culpable.

Those who resist the necessary changes, must be encouraged to leave. Grant them a full pension, if needed; but they are no longer entitled to employment in a status quo system. That is the price the public must pay for its inattention.

Posted by Sidney Rothstein
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 14, 2021 at 11:12 am

Sidney Rothstein is a registered user.

The police must be held accountable for their actions, both good and bad.

It's as simple as that.

Posted by Green Gables
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 14, 2021 at 12:23 pm

Green Gables is a registered user.

It is always good to have an independent auditor for the police AND for the City of Palo Alto.

Posted by Dick D.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 14, 2021 at 6:47 pm

Dick D. is a registered user.

Yes, the auditor should be empowered.

What about other things like going forward now with encrypting communications, despite the City Manager saying it will be delayed til the end of 2021 to look at alternative approaches - and then the PAPD goes ahead and implements it.

And what about resistance by PAPD from transparency – delay after delay in "timely" responding to the local press.

Who in blue blazes do they work "for"?

Posted by Alejandro Morales
a resident of another community
on Apr 15, 2021 at 9:05 am

Alejandro Morales is a registered user.

The police are simply saying that they cannot do their job if someone is constantly watching over their shoulders.

Whether this is a valid argument is for the residents of Palo Alto to decide and to have their city council to act upon, one way or the other.

Posted by Seriously Folks...
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Apr 16, 2021 at 6:59 am

Seriously Folks... is a registered user.

>"The police must be held accountable for their actions, both good and bad."

A suggestion...have this internal auditor review all of the individual PAPD officer's personnel records for citizen complaints and questionable actions while on duty.

Pre-establish the 'proper' parameters and then FIRE the ones who crossed the line.

Then establish further psychological testing and background checks for the remaining officers and then FIRE the ones who do not pass certain guidelines. This can also be used to vet new hires as well.

There is no need to defund the PAPD...Just get rid of ALL of the bad apples and then start anew.

Posted by deshaun w.
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Apr 16, 2021 at 8:29 am

deshaun w. is a registered user.

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

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