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By Diana Diamond

Democracy and our police departments

Uploaded: Oct 13, 2021

"Democracy is very fragile," David Kennedy, noted historian and emeritus professor at Stanford, said a couple of years ago at a class of his I attended. The loss of democracy in a country, he said, first happens slowly, in small steps, and we get used to he changes, and then one day we look around and discover we have lost our democracy, and our democratic values have disappeared.

The possible loss of our democracy is a question that is being debated throughout our country in these post-Trump years, and the tilt downward is increasing -- a Senate that refuses to debate issues, a former president who disobeyed democratic rules, a greater political divide, a seemingly partisan Supreme Court, etc.

But a loss of our democratic openness and transparency is an issue that also needs to be debated locally. I've written before about police encryption -- limiting the amount of internal and external police activity information provided to the public, under the guise of protecting people's personal information broadcast over its local airwaves, specifically the identity of people stopped by the police, including their age, address, driver's license, etc.

We've used these transmissions to inform the public and press for seven decades without any problems. Then the state Department of Justice late last year said this information can no longer be transmitted.

Palo Alto Police Chief Robert Jonsen was one of the first to comply with this new mandate, without any public or council discussion. Others followed. Some did not, such as the California Highway Patrol. No punishments yet have been imposed on CHP.

For those police departments who followed the new DOJ recommendation, some of their residents are now complaining they don't know what is happening in their towns. It seems these police departments are telling the public only what they decide to tell. I assume they reveal the good things they have done, not the bad ones, which, I guess, is a natural human trait, but it can lead to a control of how much the public can learn about a department.

Sure, some police departments release daily blogs and press releases on minor arrests and encounters, so some feel they know what's happening. But again, the police decide what goes on those blogs. And that is not transparency.

I am delighted that the Palo Alto City Council this summer has assigned its hired auditor, the OIR Group, under its director, Michael Gennaco, from the LA area, to delve deeper into department doings. Lo and behold, OIR found three instances in the early part of this year, but, since the council action, their investigation has expanded to 16 cases. What the police had dismissed as not worthy as news, such as public complaints and internal conflicts, has caught OIR's attention and is now being reported on. Good work, council

The OIR Group, which audits about eight law enforcement agencies, is uniquely positioned to both publicize and vet police investigations. Unlike the public and most city officials, it has unfettered access to Police Department records, the Weekly reported.

So why am I talking about what our police department is doing in terms of transparency and openness? Because if their activities are hidden from us, we the people don't know what is happening in our town.

It's also not very democratic when a police chief decides to encrypt public transmission for the department before discussing it with the city council. That decision affects the public and the press and the ability for people to know what's happening. This is not a minor issue.

Many of us in the state either haven't noticed this lack of information, or simply don't care about it. The Mercury News has recently published some letters to the editor from people living in encrypted communities who are complaining they don't know what's going on. The DOJ mandate is state wide.

But think about it, if we don't know what's happening within our government or state, and there is no transparency, we have a diminished democracy. I care a lot about this issue. Hope you do too. It's our town we want to find out about. It's our democracy that we need to protect.