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 the past few years:
• Police Sgt. Wayne Benitez in February 2018 was arresting a man, Gustavo Alvarez, at the Buena Vista mobile home site. 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. The video of the slamming incident was the result if a tape the mobile home had outside cr 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 DA'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• About two years ago, a policy was proposed by City Counsel Mollie Stump, and first adopted by city council and then rescinded, to handover all internal police-to-police conflict issues to the city's Human Relations Department, where cases immediately become a personnel issue and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 tweaks, but they were not. It's major if police conflict investigations go to HR, not to the chief himself or outside investigators. The public complained, and the council changed its mind
• Early this year the state's Department of Justice issued a memo on "police encryption." The memo said all police on-the-job interactions with the police dispatch can no longer be transmitted because the ID of the individual who is stopped by police must be protected. -- unless police departments could find other ways to hide the identity from the public. Jonsen quickly adopted encryption, without knowledge or approval of the city council, and the radio frequency transmissions have been silent for months. People (and reporters) 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 has searched but found no solution. Yet the California Highway Patrol found a way -- sending 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 this year, Jonsen issued a release 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 at least another 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 a few days ago, we learned in the press about one more outcome that occurred just after the 2018 car windshield incident. Text messages were sent by Agent Thomas DeStefano, who was at the scene, to police officer Thomas Mulvaney of the department. saying, "You missed out -- The Fuse was lit tonight." Mulvaney replied, "That's my favorite thing ever ... that's a 100% real cop right here. " Those text messages were sent in 2018 -- three years ago -- but that text conversation never went public. Jonsen said he hadn't known about "The Fuse" nickname for Benitez, which is surprising because Jonsen is in charge of those very police officers.
When I was editor of a newspaper, I knew about my staff, watched them to make sure they were working hard to report things accurately to the public. I think police performance is even more critical since police can arrest anyone anytime, and because police frequently, accidentally, carelessly, or deliberately (George Floyd) kill people.
• The city has had a contract with Michael Gennaco, head of the OIR Group, which serves as independent outside police auditors. Palo Alto had used the group for several years. I've read some of Gennaco's investigative reports and they were direct, honest, and in the process of auditing police work, he found out problems in the department the public was not aware of. Then a couple of limitations were put on Gennaco (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 issue, Gennaco said he still, in late December, has not received from Jonsen all the documents he needs from the 2018 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 a several problems in the Palo Alto Police Department the last couple of years, particularly lack of transparency. The department has closed off ways to get information to the public. I've read in the Mercury that police departments in the state are known for their reluctance to release information about police activities, but 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 officials, 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. Gennaco is paid $91,700 a year (for an estimated 24 investigations this coming year).
Most of this information came from the Palo Alto Daily Post and the Palo Alto Weekly, and conversations with a DA official and with Michael Gennaco, an independent police auditor and head of the OIR Group, as well as my tracking of police incidents the past couple of years.