By Sandy Brundage
Robert Jonsen, Menlo Park's new police chief, is bringing a touch of Los Angeles sunshine to his post: The department will begin releasing annual reports with statistical data regarding complaints made against officers, and the outcomes, available to the public.
Prompted by records requests from the Almanac asking for data on complaints made during the past five years, Chief Jonsen set out to compile the statistics, only to find the task nowhere near as straight-forward as expected: Throughout the department's history, the criteria for what constituted a complaint shifted, and discerning outcomes proved equally difficult.
That's no longer the case.
"From now on, a complaint is a complaint," Chief Jonsen told the Almanac. As of July 1 (the start of the fiscal year) the department started tracking complaints and will release an annual report of statistics indicating how many complaints were made (both founded and unfounded), the geographic distribution by police beat, and the outcome — whether resolved, unresolved or resolved through mediation. The reports will not include identifying information such as names. The process is similar to that used by departments in other jurisdictions where he's worked, such as Los Angeles.
The lack of historical data may be due to the Menlo Park department, like many small police departments, having few complaints to begin with. The chief hopes the new annual report will demonstrate the overall exemplary work performed by his officers.
The city's two police unions are "extremely supportive" of the move, he said. "We're doing good work; why wouldn't we want to show those numbers?" Chief Jonsen asked. "The message is 'the future is up to you' if we want to keep those numbers low."
Menlo Park council members applauded the initiative. "Quite often people don't realize we do take these things seriously," Councilwoman Catherine Carlton said, and added that she hopes the reports will give "a little background to explain the outcome."
Chief Jonsen is also working toward implementing a mediation option for conflict resolution if the unions will agree. The mediation would give those who filed complaints a chance to meet with the officers involved, and provide everyone with an opportunity to describe their perspectives of the incident.
"People want to be heard. If everyone walks out feeling heard, that would be a successful conflict resolution," he said.
Last but definitely not least, the police department has formed a new citizens advisory committee. Its 20 members include at least one representative from every Menlo Park neighborhood, according to the chief, and will meet on a monthly basis.
Residents and officials alike have been taking stock of Menlo Park's new police chief, the fifth hired during the past eight years. Recently it was the NAACP's turn to sit down to discuss the past and look to the future of the police department's historically troubled relationship with some segments of the community.
On May 29 the San Jose-Silicon Valley chapter of the organization sent a letter to Chief Jonsen asking that the department develop a relationship of mutual respect with residents, as well as strengthen its communication, transparency and accountability.
The chief provided a copy of the letter to the Almanac: "A few residents have expressed their concerns regarding police stops, contacts and use of excessive force, and general police attitudes," wrote Rev. Jethroe Moore, president of the local NAACP. Some officers "have been accused of abusive and a racist sarcastic manner, when dealing with the public, and have shown a recurring pattern of discourtesy and detachment."
Traffic stops were also a concern; the NAACP called for the Menlo Park police department to collect data on all stops that included the location and time, the justification, the outcome, whether photos were taken or searches performed or other suspect information recorded.
The letter did not name specific officers or incidents. It concluded by asking the chief to commit to changing the current climate of the police department.
Representatives of the NAACP did not respond to questions regarding what specific incidents, if any, had prompted the letter. A records search of courthouse files did not shed any light on the matter.
According to Chief Jonsen, the Rev. Moore and two constituents followed up the letter with a meeting, which the chief described as focused on concerns the NAACP has had with the police department in the past, and how to build a better relationship going forward.
"I can't go back and change things," Chief Jonsen said.
Increasing accessibility, ensuring that residents are treated with respect and expanding police presence through technology and the new Belle Haven substation will be key, according to the chief.
Menlo Park spent nearly 10 years trying to open a new substation in that neighborhood; the effort stalled due to disputes between the city and the developer. But once police identified a promising location in a strip mall at 871 Hamilton Ave. off Willow Road, Facebook volunteered to help fund it, guaranteeing to cover $2,750 in monthly rent and to pay for renovations.
In contrast to the old facility on Newbridge Street — a dour, forbidding building with barred windows — the new substation will look less like a bunker and more like a place people want to drop by, the chief said.
"We're the police. We can't take the bars down? What message does that send?" he said.
After opening, the substation will launch a six-month staffing trial with a community service officer and a code enforcement officer, keeping someone available at the facility Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. A Spanish speaker will be on hand Wednesday through Saturday.
Services will include code enforcement, filing police reports, purchasing overnight parking permits and signing off on equipment violations. A small conference room will be dedicated for community meetings, and the department is also going to work on establishing a neighborhood watch program.