In recent weeks the department has come under fire from resident Jonathan Buckheit, who says he was treated badly after calling 911 and reporting that he was the victim of a domestic dispute with a woman. The responding Atherton officers arrested him instead of the alleged assailant, but no charges were ever filed in the 2008 case.
Since then, Mr. Buckheit has fought to clear his name and recently won a declaration of factual innocence from a San Mateo County Superior Court judge. He is now suing the department over the incident, saying his civil rights were violated. He has also publicly charged that there were numerous police mistakes — including an allegation that an officer's report of the incident was altered — in the way the case was handled.
In his ruling, Judge Mark Forcum ordered that the arrest records be expunged and the case sealed, making it impossible for The Almanac and other parties to review the testimony and court records.
The Buckheit case follows a recent pay-out of $230,000 to former Atherton police officer Pilar Ortiz-Buckley. The city agreed to settle her sexual harassment and disability discrimination complaint out of court before depositions were even taken. The City Council did not release details of the settlement for nearly a month, which angered some residents and spurred the council to apologize and promise to do a better job at keeping residents informed.
Mr. Gruber did not help matters when in November he announced that Mr. Guerra was taking over as chief of the department without the town's conducting a search or public hearing, after former Chief Glenn Nielsen retired. The sudden and surprise move was accepted by the council, but others in the community thought Mr. Gruber acted too quickly. Some said they were upset that members of the public were not invited to comment on the appointment and that outside candidates were not considered for the high-profile position.
Perhaps to make up for failing to include the public in his decision to hire Mr. Guerra, City Manager Gruber may be trying to make amends by offering a public meeting with the chief. Certainly this is a good decision, although much more could be done, including giving his strong support to establishing a citizen oversight committee as proposed by resident Peter Carpenter, the president of the Atherton Civic Interest League. Mr. Carpenter said he does not feel that there are serious problems in the police department, but believes an oversight committee could address "...a growing level of concern and distrust regarding the police department."
Such a committee would conduct its business in public under Brown Act regulations, advise the department on policies and procedures and act as a review board for citizen complaints, under Mr. Carpenter's proposal.
So far, there has been no official reaction from City Council members, but we urge them to seriously consider forming a police review committee. In many jurisdictions, police misconduct is almost impossible to smoke out. Only in rare cases will one officer testify against another, and internal discipline often is hamstrung by union rules or arcane procedures that can block hearings about a complaint for years.
A citizen review committee could cut through such red tape and quickly and thoroughly investigate any complaint raised about the department. Many Atherton residents have a close relationship with the department and trust it to provide a safe environment. A citizen review committee would improve that relationship in the years to come.