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By Diana Diamond

Memo to PA Police Chief Jonsen: What are you hiding from us? And why?

Uploaded: May 4, 2021

TO: Robert Jonsen, Chief of Police, Palo Alto

FROM: Diana Diamond, Palo Alto resident

TOPIC: Keeping residents in the dark about police activities

Chief, we have never met in person but I have watched you several times at city council meetings and was impressed.

As you may know, I am a long-time journalist and columnist in this city, but today I am writing as a concerned resident. Important incidents involving your department are not being made public, as they used to be, and now are oftentimes unavailable or hidden from the press – keeping me and other residents in the dark about what is happening in our town.

I don’t think this is good for we residents, our community – or your own department.

Several examples follow, which I am sure you are aware of, but which I find disturbing:

• If a reporter wants to ask the police about an incident like an auto accident, that can only be done by sending an online form to the PD’s web page, according to your recent ruling, Chief. A reporter is told an officer will get back within 24 hours. Any follow-up questions? Submit another form and wait. This process leaves much to be desired. You, Chief Jonsen, have also ruled that reporters can’t talk to police officers.

• The Weekly has been unable to get police information about a robbery at Rick's Rather Rich Ice Cream and Peninsula Creamery Dairy Store. A request was submitted by the Weekly on April 5. No response yet. A small ice cream store robbery needs to be kept hidden from the public? Why?

• Because of a suit filed by the sleeping victim, a Palo Alto police officer, who is the department’s dog handler, twice had his dog attack a person sleeping in the back yard of a Mountain View house -- the police officer had not talked to the sleeper and the attack was without any warning. Mountain View police called Palo Alto for dog assistance -- they were looking for a robber. The man found sleeping was not the person they wanted. The way The Daily Post found out about it was by tracking the reason for the lawsuit, a public document. There was no previous police mention of the incident.

• A Palo Alto resident reported on Nextdoor, the local community website, that there was an accident around Middlefield Road in Midtown involving three cars – one car was on the street. one car was on its side and the third car was found hanging (?!!) in a tree. Neither newspaper in town knew about the accident and did not report on a car in a tree. I only know about it (if it’s true) through the Nextdoor report.

Chief Jonsen, why are you keeping these activities quiet, especially at a time when police departments around the country have big problems, even prompting some FBI investigations on the internal workings of cities’ police departments. Our city has a policy of transparency. Your department doesn’t seem to be following that policy.

What are the police hiding? my friends ask me. I don’t know, but it sure feels information is not flowing from your department as it used to be five years ago.

Second issue: As most of us have read, the state Department of Justice told police chiefs that 24-hour radio transmissions between dispatch and police officers on duty must now be encrypted (silenced) because certain private information (SS#, driver’s license #, maybe addresses) cannot be released. But the DOJ also said if PDs can find a way to keep the private material off the airwaves, then it is fine to continue with the transmissions.

You quickly told the council you couldn’t find a way to solve this – and threw it into the councils’ and newspaper editors' laps to find an answer. You continue to encrypt.

Surely there must be solutions. For years radio and TV stations quickly bleeped out some words, or there are short delays before the PD officers’ transmissions are released. Or privacy details could be put at the end of a police conversation and that part silenced.

The encryptions are not helping residents. Case in point: On Jan, 26, 2021, there was a big, windy storm in the evening. Usually, reporters can find out where trees are down, what roads are blocked and other problems and post information on their website. But that night, there were no police radio transmissions. Reporters could hear sirens but not find out what was happening -- and if they filled out the required police form, they would have to wait (until morning?) for an answer from a police officer.

Fellow residents, do you feel safer now in your community knowing the effect of encryption during a storm?

We have problems with getting information from our very own police department, and part of the problem is that I suspect you, Chief, want it this way. It’s easier– and “better” from a PR point of view, to cover up unpleasant incidents. Or maybe, Chief, you didn’t realize what the result of applying the state DOJ’s suggestion about encryption would have on the newspapers and residents in this town – and other communities. Maybe the DOJ also did not realize it.

Last Thursday the PAPD did release a report of a burglary of 35 guns from the garage of a residential home. That release was good, but it came two days after the burglary. If there happened to be any onlookers, the delay is not helpful in finding them. These reports previously were released within hours, not days.

Yes, the press can still get things off the police blotter – mostly bike thefts and arrests for drunken or drug behavior. But that police dog problem was never on the blotter. Neither was the car in a tree.

Way back in 1935, Nobel Prize-winning author Sinclair Lewis wrote a book titled “It Can’t Happen Here.” Borrowing the title, I think depriving the public from police department information is happening right here in our fair city. And if it can happen in Palo Alto, it can happen in other cities in the United States. And when that happens, some of our democratic values disappear.

City council, you are in charge. We residents need your help. Now. Please.