Almanac

News - February 27, 2013

Atherton council OKs police records shredding

by Renee Batti

After hearing assurances from Atherton's town attorney that information in the police files slated for destruction was "trivial in every sense," a unanimous City Council on Feb. 20 authorized the shredding of 18 files on internal investigations and citizen complaints.

The files contain "nothing fresh or useable in any way" in terms of possible lawsuits or ongoing problems with individual police officers, attorney Bill Conners told the council.

All the files are at least five years old, and none has to do with issues of officer integrity or possible criminal behavior, said Police Chief Ed Flint, who brought the authorization request to the council.

Under state law, records of citizen complaints and internal investigations of police officers must be kept for at least five years, and their destruction after that period requires the written consent of the city attorney and city council authorization. Destruction of old files under a sound records retention policy is "standard operating procedure," Chief Flint said.

Before the vote, Councilman Bill Widmer noted that he had received email from residents concerned about destroying records in a police department that has been marked in recent years by incidents drawing lawsuits and disciplinary action. Although he has confidence in the police chief's performance and judgment, there is a lingering concern on the part of some residents about possible police officer misconduct, Mr. Widmer said. "We need to err on the conservative side," he said.

Other council members noted, however, that under Chief Flint's leadership, welcome changes have been made. The council should "support his judgment in changing the way we do things," said Councilman Cary Wiest, who also said he had heard from a number of residents concerned about the matter.

The town has been remiss in adhering to its record retention policy, and Chief Flint's effort to conform to it shouldn't be discouraged, Councilman Jerry Carlson said. Mayor Elizabeth Lewis agreed, saying that every jurisdiction regularly purges its records in keeping with policy, and Atherton should do so as well.

In his report, Chief Flint stressed the importance of following a retention schedule, noting that "(i)n the event of litigation, courts accept a retention schedule as establishing an agency's 'normal course of doing business' and duty to retain records. Retention of stale information in personnel and litigation matters can be detrimental to staff, the organization, and the town."

Offering strong support for the chief's request, Councilman Jim Dobbie wanted the police records shredding project to start a town trend. He urged town staff to start getting rid of the rat-gnawed clutter of records stored in the Carriage House in Holbrook-Palmer Park. "I'm all for cleaning house," he said.

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