News

Editorial: Why the secrecy in Menlo Park?

 

Recent requests by the Almanac for information about police department matters have produced some troubling responses from the city of Menlo Park. In the latest incident, the city denied a reporter's request for what should be publicly available statistics: How many currently serving police officers have been charged or convicted of criminal offenses? And how many have been fired during the past 10 years?

Reporter Sandy Brundage made it clear in her request to the city that she wasn't seeking any identifying information, which the city would be unable to provide legally because of laws protecting the privacy of public employees, particularly police officers. She also noted in her request that the city of San Jose maintains a public database that reports on a quarterly basis disciplinary actions and outcomes involving all city employees, including police officers.

Menlo Park's response? No. The request "would require the city to physically review individual records/personnel files and create documents that do not exist. The records themselves are confidential personnel information which we are required to maintain as such."

The request for statistics stemmed from the Almanac's investigation of a 2011 incident in which Menlo Park police officer Jeffrey Vasquez was caught in a motel room with a known prostitute. Although he was charged with solicitation by the Santa Clara County DA's office, the case was later dismissed.

After an internal affairs investigation, the city fired Officer Vasquez, but that action was overturned in binding arbitration.

The story, reported by Ms. Brundage, raised serious questions about why it's so difficult to fire cops who break the law they swear to uphold. And it shed light on a system of confidentiality that protects rogue officers and those who perform below an acceptable standard of public service.

The city's latest refusal to release non-confidential information follows another recent struggle by the reporter to obtain police logs for a three-year period. The logs are released to the public on a daily basis. The city responded that its policy was to provide the public, upon request, only the most recent 30 days of the log, even though the police department keeps the documents for two years. Menlo Park released the logs only after a fight.

The Almanac isn't the only witness to the city's stonewalling. When Vicki Smothers reported a terrifying encounter to Menlo Park police in 2011, the department refused to give her a copy of the 911 call she placed. Ms. Smothers was legally entitled to that copy, as the state requires disclosure of witness statements and case reports to all parties in a case unless doing so harms another victim, a witness, or the investigation. The city attorney cited none of those exceptions in denying her request.

Whose interests are served when a public agency withholds information that legally should be available to anyone who asks for it? In an era when the public's trust in government is sinking ever lower, only tone-deaf public officials, or those with something to hide, will fight disclosure of non-confidential information.

As Menlo Park nears a decision on hiring a new police chief, we hope that a commitment to transparency and an understanding of the public's right to access information will be important criteria in that decision. The city should be serving as a model of transparency instead of a model of obfuscation.

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Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Give it a rest
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 30, 2013 at 10:42 am

I guess the Almanac got tired of beating up on the Atherton police department (for awhile) and is now moving on to the Menlo Park police department.

See any commonality here? These guys just don't like law enforcement.

The laws on the book protecting police confidentiality are designed for the protection of citizens. Criminals would love to retaliate against cops by obtaining every minor compliant made against them to try to use with a jury to get out from under their own criminal acts.

We all get this. The Almanac doesn't.

Editor's note: The editorial makes it clear that we are seeking data, but not identifying information: "Reporter Sandy Brundage made it clear in her request to the city that she wasn't seeking any identifying information, which the city would be unable to provide legally because of laws protecting the privacy of public employees, particularly police officers."


Like this comment
Posted by Grand Jury
a resident of Woodside: other
on Jan 30, 2013 at 10:59 am

This sounds eactly like the sort of thing the San Mateo County Grand Jury should be investigating. We pay the taxes that make the Menlo Park Police exist and allow for pensions....We should be entitled to the information.


Like this comment
Posted by Lurker
a resident of another community
on Jan 30, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Look, the problem stems from the fact that the current San Mateo District Attorney - unlike many DA's in the country - is thick as thieves with ALL San Mateo County law enforcement and that his first inclination is to cover and protect them when they get into trouble. Take the incident involving Sheriff Greg Munks. Both Wagstaffe and then DA Fox came to his defense after he was found at the house for underaged prostitutes in Las Vegas. We all saw the weirdly fawning emails Wagstaffe wrote to Munks after he broke the law. If that had happened in say, LA, or Seattle or Boston, the press would have called for Wagstaffe and Jim Fox's heads, as well as Munks'

There's no oversight committee to review the culture of secrecy fostered both by police departments and the DA's office when crimes have been committed by officers.

The Almanac was fortunate that one of their reporters happened to overhear the incident involving Vasquez. Are there crimes committed by police officers in San Mateo County that have been hushed up ? Hypothetically, what if a police officer in San Mateo had raped a citizen but the public never got to hear about it?

Keep digging, Almanac.


Like this comment
Posted by Lurker
a resident of another community
on Jan 30, 2013 at 12:44 pm

To Grand Jury: I wouldn't get your hopes up about the Grand Jury doing anything.

Five years ago, I was asked by the San Mateo Grand Jury to donate all sorts of documentation for a problem they were investigating. Then they invited me to speak in person. After I spoke, they agreed that the problem was "an outrage" . But they copped out and said that the problem was not in their jurisdiction. Some on the grand jury had personal connections to the people who were part of the problem they were investigating.

There aren't a ton of people in slumbering San Mateo County who will make the effort and stand up and do the right thing at this point.

This needs to be investigated by an entity outside San Mateo County.


Like this comment
Posted by Wondering
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jan 30, 2013 at 1:23 pm

Assembling these records costs money in taking up staff time. Is that the problem?


Like this comment
Posted by Lurker
a resident of another community
on Jan 30, 2013 at 1:33 pm

Wondering:

The California Department of Corrections will do searches for information, for a fee. Perhaps if the Almanac were willing to offer to pay the Menlo Park PD for a search?


Like this comment
Posted by Robert
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 30, 2013 at 1:59 pm

Well of course they didn't provide the information. The police in Menlo Park are too busy verbally abusing teenagers and having sex with prostitutes to waste their time on silly things like filling out paperwork.


Like this comment
Posted by Skeptic
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 30, 2013 at 2:34 pm

I'm sure that if the personnel department really had to compile those statistics, it might cost some staff hours. But does anyone really believe those statistics don't exist already? Can our paid public city hall managers really not keep track of personnel matters this important? Sorry, I don't buy it.


Like this comment
Posted by Disgusted
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 30, 2013 at 5:09 pm

Records exist. Statistics, if not there, can be compiled. McIntyre needs to be held accountable for this. After all, why is executive staff talking about City business in public? Fire McIntyre.


Like this comment
Posted by Blue Collusion
a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Jan 30, 2013 at 6:58 pm

Clearly, there is a conspiracy of self-protection within the entire Law Enforcement community, not just Menlo Park. How many tales of police corruption and covering-up for each other have been in the news lately? I count many! This should stop, but it won't under the current Grand Jury and self-police conspiracy. Good for the Almanac to bring this out . . shame on the other area newspapers for helping to cover it up. Atherton, Woodside, CHP . . you know what I'm talking about! :-(


Like this comment
Posted by Lurker
a resident of another community
on Jan 31, 2013 at 8:30 am

If the Almanac has done such "sloppy reporting" on Detective Vasquez, as you allege, how come so many news outlets, including CBS, thought it was worthwhile to report on the Almanac Vasquez story?

I would say that they are the only paper in San Mateo County these days that is actually interested in getting to the bottom of corruption there.


Like this comment
Posted by Robert
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 31, 2013 at 8:42 am

Maybe The Almanac would be able to garner a little more respect if the website didn't look like it was created in 1997 by a seven year old using nothing but HTML.


Like this comment
Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 31, 2013 at 4:08 pm

Robert: perhaps you can volunteer your time and skills to "fix" the Almanac's web site.


Like this comment
Posted by Lurker
a resident of another community
on Jan 31, 2013 at 4:13 pm

Robert:

The Almanac IS a respected paper. It has won a number of Bay Area journalism awards. And as I said a number of high profile media outlets picked up the Almanac's exclusive about Detective Vasquez.


Like this comment
Posted by Response
a resident of Portola Valley: other
on Feb 16, 2013 at 12:44 pm

In response to Lurker, Sandy Brundage deserves credit for actually visiting Menlo Park. Other that Vanessa from Patch, reporters are more likely to phone in the story after watching council meetings online.

Today's Post reported the naked cop made $162,800 in 2012, even though he was demoted. Although the prostitute was arrested on the spot, MPPD Detective Tim Brackett escorted the naked cop home without any jail time. Tim Brackett was promoted in 2011 (after screwing up this case along with Matt Bacon[portion removed]), but Brackett only made $160,823 in 2012... about $2,000 less than the naked cop. All of these bozos work for Lacey Burt, who recently retired... shortly after getting a raise in the consent calendar... but she's still on the payroll.

The city manger needs to step up a set an example. Time to clean house at MPPD. Tim Bracket needs to be fired/retired along with the naked cop. [Portion removed]


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