Peter Carpenter, the president of the Atherton Civic Interest League, has approached Atherton City Council members with a proposal to create a committee to address "concern and distrust" surrounding the town's police.
"I take this position not because I feel that there (are) serious problems, but because I believe there is a growing level of concern and distrust regarding the police department," Mr. Carpenter said in the e-mail he sent to town officials on Feb. 2. "Rather than waiting until we have a crisis on our hands I urge you to be proactive on this matter."
Atherton Mayor Kathy McKeithen did not return phone calls seeking comment on the proposal.
Mr. Carpenter told The Almanac that he hasn't had any negative experiences with Atherton police himself, but that he's had a number of residents tell him about incidents in which either they or their acquaintances feel they were treated inappropriately .
"I've not discussed them with other people, because I put them in the category as rumors, and it would be irresponsible of me to pass on rumors," Mr. Carpenter said. "I've had a lot of interactions with the police department because of my strong interest in disaster preparedness, and I think the current chief and the sergeant assigned to disaster preparedness are superb. Every single one of my interactions has been positive."
According to Mr. Carpenter, the police oversight committee should be made up of five residents and should hold public meetings in accordance with the state's open meeting law, the Brown Act, he said. The police chief and city manager would be non-voting members of the committee, under his proposal.
The oversight committee, as envisioned by Mr. Carpenter, would advise on police policies and procedures, as well as act as the review board for citizen complaints.
"Most (review boards) are designed to review actions that are called into question. I'd much prefer to deal proactively," he said. "(The committee's) first responsibility is to work with the town manager and police chief to look at policies and procedures to make sure that they are the ones that are most likely to improve the safety and security of the citizens, and the least likely to be abusive or cause problems."
Police Chief Mike Guerra declined to give his opinion of the proposal, saying that policy decisions are up to the City Council. His job is to provide accurate information so that council members can make decisions, he said.
In San Mateo County, only Hillsborough has a review board and it is composed of City Council members who also serve as police commissioners, he said. In Atherton, the City Council and the city manager have oversight over the police department, Chief Guerra said. The police department's policies and procedures are also reviewed by attorneys, he said.
"It's not like the chief can just go in and change things — not even the color of the police cars," he said.
Chief Guerra said he has formalized reporting procedures for complaints against the department, so that the city manager gets regular updates. There was one citizen complaint in 2009, he said. Since 2005, there've been a total of nine complaints lodged against officers, he said. Depending on the type of complaint, it might be handled internally or referred to an outside agency such as the San Mateo County District Attorney's Office, he said.
Mr. Carpenter said he looked nationally, not locally for models for the police oversight committee. Palo Alto's review board is "strange," he said.
"It has meetings in secret and is not subject to the Brown Act," Mr. Carpenter said. "I can't see how it can function at building trust when you have it operating in secret."
And for Mr. Carpenter, it's all about restoring trust in government.
"I'm concerned any time citizens start to lose trust in their government, because I don't think that government can work very well without trust," he said. "I think if citizens have expressed distrust, it needs to be addressed. If you don't trust your government, we've got a problem."