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By Diana Diamond

Loss of transparency? Council decides HR can investigate some internal police problems – not an independent auditor

Uploaded: Dec 17, 2019

Open governments and transparency in city affairs are big things for me – they’re part of what democracy should be all about. If city decisions are not available to the press (and, therefore, the public), we have a system where “the public doesn’t need to know this” becomes operative.

It is happening more frequently at the federal level these days, but it shouldn’t happen here.

And yet this past Monday night, Dec.16, it did, when the city council agreed unanimously(!) to keep secret from the public internal police activities that do not involve a member of the public. Therefore, a dispute between two officers would be an internal matter, to be handled by the Human Relations Department.

Police Chief Robert Jonsen and City Manager Ed Shikada said there would be “summaries” of all complaints involving police officers, but the kind of information in those summaries and any indication of what criteria will be used to determine whether the internal wrongdoing should be investigated internally or externally was not discussed. And once the HR gets involved in a problem, it becomes a “personnel matter.”

Frankly, it was a scary decision. And, for me, it portends a transparency breach on internal police problems for years to come.

Police Departments are one of the most sensitive and powerful departments in any city. Unlike other departments, police officers have the power to stop us at any time for whatever reason, to question us, arrest and charge us. No other private or public organization (except the FBI and CIA) has such potential control and coercive power over our future lives than our local police departments.

That’s why an outside auditor should investigate whatever wrongdoings officers get involved in with the investigation results sent routinely to the public and to city councils.

As reported in both the Palo Alto Weekly and the Palo Alto Daily Post, for the past 12 years, the city has relied on an Orange County police auditing firm, OIR Group, headed by Mike Gennaco, a former federal prosecutor and national expert on law enforcement reform. He was hired by the city to audit Palo Alto Police Department activities and questionable incidents, and issue semi-annual reports, which were made public. I spoke to him a couple of times and found him straightforward and knowledgeable. He was no PR flack.

One internal police incident was a racial problem. Capt. Zach Perron allegedly used the n-word to a fellow black police officer. Perron is white. OIR Group had been looking into the incident with a report due in June 2019. This spring, Stump directed the audit investigation to a new outside law firm, recommended by the city’s HR department, even though Gennaco was still under contract. His previous report was submitted in October 2018.

On Monday night this three-year $75,000 new OIR contract was up for approval by the council, which sparked the discussion and the proposed changes from Shikada and city attorney Molly Stump. The result was the 7-0 approval vote.

The big problem I have with the new contract is that it will also clarify for the first time that the outside auditor will not look at police activities that do not involve members of the public. It specifies, “Complaints and investigations of internal personnel or human resources matters are not part of these Independent Police Auditor Services.”

Any investigation by HR is declared a “personnel matter” by law, and the results remain hidden inside the halls and walls of City Hall. It will be interesting to see a “summary” report of an incident a year from now, when the council discussion will be forgotten.

The other problem I have is that city officials and the police department might soon like referring wrongdoings to HR, since there will be no detailed public output. So a couple of incidents get sent over to HR, and soon, someone may suggest, why not send all such incidents over to HR to investigate?

That would be terrible since HR is not trained in police law enforcement reform and accountability responsibilities. Nor does the department include a former federal prosecutor, who knows how police departments work, like OIR does.

So why is this change coming about? What, if anything, is the city trying to hide about its police department? Just asking. Or maybe the city is simply ensuring that some wrongdoings that occur should be an internal matter, to be settled internally, so the police will be protected and the public won’t get rattled.

We will never know what cases go in to HR and whether a summary of the disposition of the wrongdoing will ever come out.