After the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last year, a protest was held June 1 near Menlo Park City Hall and was attended by Cecilia Taylor, the council member serving as mayor at the time, and then-police Chief Dave Bertini.
A couple of weeks later, during a June 18 City Council meeting to discuss police reform ideas and gather public input about the Menlo Park Police Department, Bertini abruptly announced his retirement. Public speakers at the meeting said they wanted changes in the police department: increased data and transparency, improved tracking of police stops, a halt to the city using Facebook funding to pay for police services, and improved interactions with people of color, particularly Black residents.
Others suggested outsourcing the police services to the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office or launching a pilot program to permit community-based organizations to respond to some emergencies instead of police officers.
How council members responded
The City Council favored having a series of three interactive public discussions about various aspects of policing and creating an advisory committee or commission of community members and police officers to collect input on new policies or changes to the department. Vice Mayor Betsy Nash said she favored not including City Council members on the committee.
However, further details about the advisory committee's role and who it might answer to were not decided.
The Menlo Park Police Department has for years had an informal advisory group that provided input to the police chief about policing issues that affected residents, such as body-worn cameras and automatic license plate readers, but some council members expressed interest in having a different type of group that instead would advise the City Council.
How to select committee members was another question. On one side of the argument, Nash said she favored having a formal commission or committee that is mandated to have public meetings and has certain transparency and accountability expectations.
On the other, Councilman Ray Mueller said he was convinced of the existing approach years ago, when former police Chief Bob Jonsen said he didn't want appointments to the committee to become politicized.
Council members raised various other issues they hoped the police department would address. Nash said she wanted to have more discussions around Taser use, the city's K-9 unit, mutual aid and how the number of workers who come into the community during the day affects police resources.
She also suggested inviting leaders from other cities who are piloting different approaches to policing to speak to the city — for instance, San Francisco's Street Crisis Response Team, which deploys teams made up of a community paramedic, mental health clinician and peer counselor and serves as first responders to nonviolent mental health calls. She also pointed to how the city of San Jose assigns code enforcement matters to its planning and building department rather than the police department.
Police chief's response
Norris, Menlo Park's new police chief, explained that his first 100 days have involved an extensive listening tour, meeting with police officers and staff as well as city staff and community members.
He said many of the concerns voiced about policing at a national level are likely to be addressed by the implementation of Senate Bill 230, which passed in 2019 and lays out clearer rules limiting the use of deadly force by police, especially when interacting with people who experience physical, mental health, developmental, or intellectual disabilities.
"We in California are way ahead of the game on a lot of the pieces that are in the national narrative," Norris told the council.
In addition to taking steps to comply with that legislation, he said, the Menlo Park Police Department is working on making public records more transparent. The department offers a daily police log, which generally presents a limited but detailed view of daily activities, while a daily log in the city's open data portal lists more interactions but provides fewer details. He's looking into which format to use to share those public records with the community, Norris said.
He said he's open to shifts toward more progressive public safety approaches, like boosting transparency, providing better responses to homelessness and mental health issues, reducing the need for armed police to respond to the community, and having a community-police advisory team that provides input on police policies.
Over the coming months, he added, he's also hoping to provide more information about how the department works with the community and find common goals.
In public comments, residents weighed in on which aspects of policing in the community ought to change.
Kathleen Daly, owner of Cafe Zoe, said she's interested in the topic as both an employer of young people of color and as someone who has family members with mental illness and developmental disability. She urged the city and police department to figure out ways to reform policing so that young people of color don't feel emotionally traumatized when they interact with the police, and so that police don't have to worry if they'll survive their next interaction.
"We live in the Bay Area of the U.S. of A," she said. "We have the ability to figure this out. We should be figuring this out."
Resident Gail Sredanovic asked the council to review topics such as police interactions with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, how to prevent Taser-related deaths, the pitfalls of facial recognition technology, and how to avoid racial bias in policing. "Racial bias is hard to get rid of," she said.
One question, from Belle Haven resident Alejandro Vilchez, was why the city hasn't yet enacted some recommendations developed in the Belle Haven Visioning Process, conducted in 2013, which he helped lead. One of the recommendations, he said, was to hire a new city employee to facilitate communication between the community, the police department and city staff. He also encouraged the police department to extend the hours of its neighborhood service station in Belle Haven.
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