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By Diana Diamond

Palo Alto has an escalating transparency problem -- the police have shut their doors

Uploaded: Apr 6, 2021

On Monday, April 5, the police chief of Minneapolis, Medaria Arradondo, was testifying at the George Floyd trial about his professional view that defendant Derek Chauvin’s actions in the case were unethical and against police policy. That same day, Palo Alto’s Police Chief Robert Jonsen was also under the city council’s investigation concerning the loss of police department transparency in a city that demands police openness.

Jonsen imposed his new encryption policy on Jan. 6, without public or city council knowledge, He was acting, he said, on a state Department of Justice order that police encrypt all personal information (license number, date of birth, police background) from any radio transmission. The DOJ order also said if a way can be found to omit that private information from these radio transmissions, encryption was not needed. Jonsen opted for total encryption, including not allowing the press to listen to daily police activity.

At Monday night’s meeting, to the dismay of many of us, Jonsen kept on saying any change from the current status was “complicated", would take a long time, would be very hard to do, would endanger our relationships with other cities, etc. In other words, he didn’t want to do it. Even toggling (jumping for one communication channel to another) was "a very complicated approach."

Yes, he wanted to keep his new self-imposed encryption policy intact. The city council is the policy maker in most instances; it has let the police department do its own thing – although that began to change last year. Despite a declaration of a transparent department, it is getting more opaque.

There are several incidents within the last couple of years (Jonsen took over as chief in 2018) that show the police department closing its doors to the public and press -- all very upsetting and inappropriate for this community:

• Encryption means all police radio transmissions are unavailable now for the press and public to listen to. Jonsen said he had to do this because of a recent California Department of Justice rule that said such radio transmissions must be shut down because certain personal information must be protected (driver’s license number, address, police record, etc.) OR, if police can find another way to hide this information from the public, they may do that in lieu of encryption. As Dave Price wrote in the Daily Post, the DOJ employee who did this, Joe Dominic, chief of DOJ’s Justice Services Information Division, Price said, memo “came out of nowhere,” and no new encryption law had been adopted. When Price tried to get ahold of Dominic, he “ducked” the Post’s phone calls. Hmm, a double cover-up. Great credit to Price for his detailed column on this subject.

Without access to police radio broadcasts, it is hard to find out about police conduct. How does the press or the public get to know what’s happening in town? Such police lack of access is, in my estimation, against the First Amendment. The police have shut their doors.

• Police dog bites man is the second big incident – Mountain View police were looking for a suspect, called in the PA police dog and handler, Officer Nick Enberg. The dog sniffed something in the back yard. Enberg saw a sleeping person in the back yard, and he told the dog to attack. Yes, the “sleeper,” Joel Alejo, woke up with a snarling dog in his face, He stood up and then Enberg told the dog to attack again, never saying a word yet to Alejo, whose leg by now was bitten.

MV police arrived and told Enberg that Alejo was not the person they were looking for. Alejo sued.

The incident was never made public, but the suit was and the public, about four months later, learned about it in the Post. Why not a police report? PA police said the man was not injured enough to report it. But if you read the PA police blog, all sorts of incidents are reported -- stolen bikes, fender benders, etc. Why in the world keep something like a police dog bite closeted? Because, I suspect, it’s embarrassing for the police department and Jonsen doesn’t want that. Nothing happened to Enberg who is still on staff working as a dog handler.

• In order to find about a crime or an incident, a reporter typically talks to a lieutenant or the press officer on duty. Well, Jonsen had declared that press can no longer talk to ANY police officer -- they must send their question online to the department, and “someone will get back that day or the next. Do you know what that means if you are reporting a story? “Was anyone killed in a big accident on Middlefield?” I might ask. Or, “Why are the burglary rates increasing so much?” If a reporter sends in a question, gets an answer that needs more clarification, he cannot call the police but must email his new question to the department and will get a reply in 24 hours. So, the public might not find out about the big accident for four or five days after the occurrence.

• The police had to cut its budget and one of the couple of jobs Jonsen eliminated was the Public Communications slot and the police technician. Public communications? Sure sounds like another way to eliminate press access to the department.

• There’s much more. A 2019 report from the outside police auditor was not made public until earlier this year. A council member asked why. No response yet that I know about.

Bravo to the questions and suggestions from Mayor Tom DuBois and Vice Mayor Pat Burt. They seemed truly concerned with what was happening, as did Councilmember Greg Stone, and their suggestions for what to do next were good ones. A couple of other on the council praised the police for keeping us all safe and well, and their suggestions were perfunctory. And Councilmember Greer Tanaka was worried about how Palo Alto license scanners were doing and how helpful they were. Jonsen said he would get back to him on that.

City Manager Ed Shikada was there with the council members. It seemed, but I may be reading him wrong, that he agreed with Jonsen that it would be difficult and complicated to change things. But Shikada hasn’t done an outstanding job in having the Utilities Department provide any detailed information about all the recent power outages (see Sherry Listgarten’s interesting April 4 blog on this topic).

So, what happens next? DuBois indicates there will be a council meeting covering this topic, which is good. But we need more than that because the opaque cover of city business is getting darker and darker. I don’t think the council can do the investigation by itself – maybe a panel of community experts can contribute.

People, we have a problem this city. We need to recognize that and work hard to solve it.