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By Diana Diamond

Don’t keep information from the public

Uploaded: Apr 20, 2021

We have a city hall and police department transparency problem in Palo Alto that seems to be quietly but quickly expanding.

That’s because: City Manager Ed Shikada and City Attorney Molly Stump don’t particularly want the public to know what’s going on in city hall departments, including the police department, as they say in a recent report to the council’s Policies and Services Committee. By making an internal personnel problem public, there are problems, because, “discrimination, harassment and retaliation investigations can involve sensitive, embarrassing or upsetting incidents.”

They are not talking about these incidents affecting the public but rather hurting city employees and police officers. Yes, it seems that the manager and the attorney are there to protect city employees.

The council committee was discussing enlarging the scope of the investigations by its independent police auditing firm, the OIR group, headed by Michael Gennaco, who has conducted very thorough and fair investigations of the police department for years. At the meeting, while agreeing OIR has been with the city for a long time, Shikada warned that releasing too much investigative information to the public may have a “chilling effect” on employees including supervisors, according to a story in the Weekly by Gennady Sheyner. In the past, Gennaco’s reports which do become public, did not include the names of the individuals under investigation. The three council members on the committee wanted to expand Gennaco’s role.

Shikada and Stump said in their report that the dangers in releasing an independent police auditor (IPA) report might affect “witnesses from cooperating fully with investigators when their colleagues and supervisors may be implicated. These are the reasons that the City has not publicly reported on these matters to-date. (Italics mine.) While secondary review by the IPA offers some potential for additional insights, the risks to personal privacy and an effective and confidential human resources complaint system should be considered as well.”

In other words, the city manager and attorney are saying it is better to not allow Gennaco to investigate police conduct. They don’t want his findings released to the public.

I do.

The public needs to know about the conduct of police officers, and unusual conflicts between officers, especially racial problems.

Yet Shikada and Stump further said in their report, “If allegations, facts of the investigation and findings were to be publicly disclosed, individuals’ lives and careers could be impacted, and the effectiveness of the City’s complaint resolution system could be negatively impacted. The prospect of public reporting could discourage complainants from coming forward, or witnesses from cooperating fully with investigators when their colleagues and supervisors may be implicated. These are the reasons that the City has not publicly reported on these matters to-date.”

Interesting admission, particularly since the council has urged the police department and the city to become more transparency. Residents want to know what’s happening in their police department. But once HR is involved, personnel information never becomes public.

This limitation of OIR’s scope of investigations first occurred in 2019, when Shikada and Stump asked the council to approve changes in what OIR can look into. From now on, they said, all police personal conflicts (police officer v. police office) would go to HR for investigation. Two council members assured me at the time that these were minor changes, because Molly Stump told them they were. I argued they were major changes, because once in HR, a police dispute would never be made public That was about the time that the OIR was reviewing Capt. Zach Perron, who was accused of calling a black officer a “n…”. So, the OIR investigation was never released and we still don’t know anything more about this 2014 incident.

Needless to point out, this is OUR city, and the city manager, city attorney and city staff and police are ultimately working for us. We residents have said repeatedly we want more transparency in our city.

I did not see that idea addressed in the report from Shikada and Stump.

All this comes on the heels of the encryption problem. Police Chief Jonsen ordered all police radio transmissions to stop because they may contain private information. That issue has not been resolved. (See my previous blog on this.) And the police department still refuses to answer any questions from the press. A reporter is required to submit a question in writing and a response will occur within 24 hours. That’s the opposite of transparency.

Police radio transmissions have been with us for years – without any major problems. My husband wanted to watch “The Asphalt Jungle” Sunday night – a 1950s cops-and-robbers thriller. Near the end the police chief is showing some friends the four radio transmission channels in his office that is reporting live all the conversations between the dispatchers and the police. Then the chief switched each channel off one by one. See, the he said sadly, now the public gets no news at all.

And that’s my point, echoing an old movie dialogue. City officials can’t go around saying letting a police investigator analyze police internal problems can’t be allowed d because it will hurt city employees.

No, they have it backward. It will hurt the public if we have little or no knowledge of what’s happening at city hall – and chip away at our local democracy.