Opinion: Council should reject plan to reduce police transparency

Opinion

BY DAVE PRICE
Daily Post Editor

Palo Alto City Attorney Molly Stump will ask City Council tonight (Dec. 16) to vote on a dreadful proposal to reduce public oversight of the Police Department.

Ironically, it comes a month after the city paid $572,500 settlement to end a civil suit over a police beating caught on video. If there was ever a time to increase oversight, it’s now.

In the first decade of the 2000s, the department was embroiled in a series of excessive force cases and other scandals. City Council members usually don’t get involved in police policy. But things got so bad that council decided to take action. In 2007, council hired an independent police auditor to review how the department handled complaints about officers. The auditor, a firm out of Orange County led by former federal prosecutor and national expert Mike Gennaco, began releasing public reports every six months.

The reports, along with a change in police chief, seemed to improve things. Cops knew that they were now subject to more scrutiny than before.

The auditor’s reports stopped

Gennaco’s last report was in October 2018, 14 months ago.

The next report was due in June.

In May, the Post reported that the city had hired an outside law firm to investigate a complaint that Capt. Zach Perron, who is white, allegedly used the n-word while attempting to make a joke about a black officer. The black officer has since left the department.

The auditor report due in June never came out. Nobody at the city would explain why.

Then in October, we got a clue about what was happening behind the scenes. The city scheduled a closed council session on “anticipated litigation” involving “multiple potential cases.” The topic was: “Potential inclusion of Human Resources and Equal Employment Opportunity matters in (the) scope of police auditing and reporting services.”

Nobody at the city would comment on that agenda item. But I read it to mean that police officers and their unions were threatening to sue the city if an upcoming auditor’s report included information from an HR investigation.

We knew that the complaint against Perron had gone to a law firm who had been hired by the city HR department.

A reasonable guess is that Perron’s attorney and possibly the lawyers for the police unions were arguing that the auditor’s report shouldn’t mention anything from the law firm’s investigation into the n-word case because that was an HR matter.

Then on Thursday, City Attorney Stump sent a memo to council that said Gennaco’s contract has expired and she wanted to make some changes in his new contract.
The biggest change is that the police auditor couldn’t review anything that’s deemed to be an HR matter.

That means:

1. If a police officer sees another officer engaging in misconduct, that incident could be classified as an HR matter and be routed to the HR office rather than the police auditor. That would keep the incident secret from the council and public.

2. Excluding HR investigations from police auditor reports means Gennaco would have to remove everything in his upcoming report about the Perron incident that he obtained from the law firm hired by HR.

3. If police are allowed to classify every incident involving officers as HR matters, Gennaco would have nothing to put in his reports.

Why now?

It’s amazing that the city has had a police auditor for 12 years and this issue had never come up before. And now, this issue threatens to gut a system that had increased police accountability.

At tonight’s meeting, council members should demand to know who is pushing Stump to make these changes. If council members were already told in closed session, then they should come clean and identify those threatening the city with lawsuits. Public policy shouldn’t be influenced by anonymous people holding private meetings with city officials.

We wouldn’t let anonymous land developers hold private meetings with council members and then change city policy based on those private discussions. If that happened, the council members who went along with the developers would be recalled from office.

Instead of voting on this proposal, council should slow down and take some time studying this issue.

• Is there a way to have the police auditor continue reviewing cases separately from HR? Can’t a parallel investigation be done to protect the transparency of the auditor’s investigation and the confidentiality of the HR process?

• Should the Perron case be allowed to destroy the police auditor system?

• What works best in other cities with police auditors?

• What do residents think? This issue was sprung on the community with only four days’ notice, hardly enough time for meaningful public consideration.
Council shouldn’t allow secret threats to destroy a system that has provided transparency to the public for 12 years.

Editor Dave Price’s column appears on Mondays. His email address is price@padailypost.com.

Questions council should ask Stump tonight

1. Will this change in policy stop the release of the Zach Perron report?

2. Who is threatening to sue if this policy isn’t changed?

3. How can the council and residents be assured that complaints about police brutality, racial bias, gender bias, dishonesty, etc., aren’t routed to HR in order to avoid the auditor and public disclosure?

4. How many other cities tell their police auditors they can’t review cases in which one cop brings a complaint about another cop?

5. Under this policy, who decides that a complaint should go to HR instead of the auditor? What is the criteria for such a decision?

2 Comments

  1. Silly. Of course the council will be manipulated by a union. It’s been that way for years. Why do you think we’re facing a $400 million pension deficit.

  2. This police department is out of control. It may be time to disband the department and turn policing over to the sheriff, like they do in other cities such as Cupertino and Saratoga. I don’t think our council has the competence to manage a police department.

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