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About this blog: I was editor of the Palo Alto Weekly from June 2000 to January 2011, capping a more than 50-year career in journalism and writing since Los Gatos High School, where I was editor of the student newspaper and president of the speech...  (More)

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On Deadline blog: Palo Alto police and fire operations face big changes -- to be defined

Uploaded: Feb 8, 2012
Some of the most sweeping changes in the long histories of the Palo Alto Police Department and Fire Department are beginning to take shape -- even though many are yet undefined.

That was the essence of what Dennis Burns, the interim chief of both departments, told City Council members at the Jan. 21 annual retreat of the council.

He repeated the message of nearly every police chief for the past three decades: That the existing police department is under-sized and inadequate to do an effective job in safeguarding the community -- particularly if a major earthquake damaged the structure and adjacent emergency-dispatch and Emergency Operations Center (in the "basement" of City Hall).

A "mobile command center" bus purchased recently with state and federal Homeland Security grants is good to have but is not a permanent replacement for a new building, Burns said.

A new "public safety building" has been proposed but was shelved by the City Council after the estimated cost for a 49,000-square-foot structure floated to about $80 million. But that figure included acquisition of a site on Park Boulevard just south of Oregon Expressway. If a city-owned site could be found it would be less expensive.

But the big barrier will be convincing city voters that a new building is essential to the future well-being of Palo Alto, either day-to-day or in emergencies. A survey showed that community support falls short of the two-thirds majority needed to approve bonds for such a project -- even though a majority of voters said they would support a bond measure.

Some of the changes being discussed are mandated by technology and the possibilities that opens to finding ways to improve operational effectiveness and efficiency -- and some may be simple economics.

For the jargon-challenged, "effectiveness" translates to the kind of job officers and firefighters do under the management structures of the departments. "Efficiency" translates to cost and budget, more important than ever in these post-recession days.

City Manager James Keene set the stage for Burns' comments. He cited a recent report from the "Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission," now known by its acronym, IBRC, pronounced "I-Brick." Seventeen commissioners spent months evaluating city infrastructure needs.

A copy of the report is available through a link on a council agenda: http://www.cityofpaloalto.org/civica/filebank/blobdload.asp?BlobID=29935 . It's worth reading for anyone waiting to comment on (or attack) its recommendations.

The IBRC report was something of a Christmas present of civic goodies to the council and city administrators: it was dated Dec. 22. Unfunded goodies, however, with a total cost estimate approaching $400 million.

Relating to police and fire -- or "public safety" -- services, Keene said the IBRC recommendations "were generally founded in the status quo of the organizations. They didn't get into re-imagining different ways of providing the services."

Burns and others are now actively exercising their imaginations, where a public-safety building looms large, Burns indicated Jan. 21. Not too large, as some have charged. Perhaps just the right size?

An urgency framed the IBRC recommendation: "Build a new Public Safety Building (PSB) as soon as possible on a new site, incorporating the Police Department, the Fire Department administration, the Communications Center, the Emergency Operations Center, and the Office of Emergency Services.

"Public safety should be a top priority for any city, but that priority has been dangerously deferred in Palo Alto," the commissioners urged. "An initial action should be site acquisition, preferably the Park Avenue (or equivalent) site previously identified by the 2006 Task Force.

"The Commission reviewed rebuilding at the present site, splitting public safety into multiple facilities, and exploring further interagency collaborations. None of these compared favorably."

So far.

A new building "has literally been in the process for 27 years in the Police Department," Burns reminded the council, citing "dozens and dozens of (citizen) reports and staff reports." One of the more recent, prior to IBRC, was the Blue Ribbon Task Force of 2006, which recommended a 49,000-square-foot building -- about the same size as the San Mateo public-safety building to serve a city of about 93,000 persons.

Palo Alto's population is about the same, on average: It fluctuates from about 64,000 night-time residents up to more than 110,000 daytime occupants, with "significantly larger" numbers in hot economic times.

By contrast Palo Alto's police headquarters presently is the second-oldest in the county, built in 1968 along with the rest of City Hall, then called the Civic Center. And it never did the job well, even when it was new in the early 1970s. It did survive the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, but barely and then only under the prodding of Fred Hermann, former chief building official, who worked with Public Works people to upgrade the facility, adding buttresses to the ends of the police buildings and reinforcing vulnerable welded seams throughout City Hall.

Even so, the large concrete arcade around the City Hall block had to be removed due to quake damage. Reports indicate the structure still has seismic risks, and that underneath it is probably not the most logical place for an emergency dispatch or command center in earthquake country. The structure has failed to live up to the "safe building" assurances of city officials in the late 1960s, when I was reporting on the construction for the erstwhile Palo Alto Times.

I and Times' photographer Gene Tupper once climbed all through the under-construction building, including out to the end of the giant overhead crane for a great birds'-eye view and photo.

Today, other than the new-building design considerations, what is most likely to emerge from the "re-imagining" process is some level of consolidation of services at two levels: combining administrative functions between police and fire departments, such as budgeting, purchasing and planning; and a likely consolidation of dispatch operations with some neighboring jurisdictions.

Burns made it clear that a full consolidation of police and fire operations (such as in Sunnyvale's Public Safety Department) is not envisioned. But Keene has been encouraging -- perhaps pushing is better description -- what he calls a "nominal consolidation" of management operations between police and fire, including Burns continuing as chief of both departments.

Voters will have the ultimate say on a new building -- and winning approval will likely need strong citizen leadership similar to what happened in the library bond measure that is funding the new Mitchell Park Library and Community Center on Middlefield Road. Any champions around?

Otherwise we might be in for another 27 years of discussion, barring a major earthquake.

NOTE: Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a cc: to jaythor@well.com.
Local Journalism.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of ,
on Feb 8, 2012 at 7:06 pm

The link points to a letter sent recently to the Palo Alto City Council:

Use of Facial Recognition Software:
Web Link

The thrust of the letter is that a lot of technology that is beginning to be used by other police and law enforcement agencies around the world is going ignored here in Palo Alto, while the construction of a new police station continues to occupy the attention of a small number of City officials (like the Police Chief).

In December, the Council was provided a rather difficult to read paper that looked at the Demographic data for only one quarter of traffic stops:

Web Link

This paper came to the conclusion that about 55% of the stops in Palo Alto result in "NO ACTION" (meaning that they are "courtesy stops" or "pretext stops"). Either way, there is every possibility that defunding most, if not all, of the so-called "traffic team" (traffic patrol services) would not actually affect public safety.

The paper also comes to the conclusion that all of the police departments in the greater Bay Area should be recording demographic data using the same data collection templates, and the same analysis software. This suggests strongly that a regionalization of the police function would be in the interests of both the police, and residents and the taxpayers.

Without a complete rethinking of the police function, the City of Palo Alto will continue to spend upwards of 40% of its yearly budget on public safety personnel (salary and benefits). If it spends upwards of $100M for a new public safety building, this will add another $2.5M-$3M per year on the backs of the property tax payers--for a building which will not reduce crime in any appreciable way.

To date, little effort has been expended to develop a technology plan for the police and fire departments. Nor has there been much work done to look at how a regionalized police/fire function might work, what it might cost, and where assets like facilities might be located.

Chief Burns needs to provide the public why he has not been looking forward 20 years, rather than trying to hold on to the "status quo".

Posted by Jimmy, a resident of ,
on Feb 8, 2012 at 10:34 pm

Mr. Thorwaldson, if you have a digital copy of those pictures from when the current city building was built, I would love to see them! Maybe you could post them online. Sounds really cool. I really appreciated the historical perspective in your blog post, since I am a relative newcomer to this area. Thanks!

Posted by Jay Thorwaldson, a resident of ,
on Feb 9, 2012 at 8:49 am

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

Alas, photographer Gene Tupper retired many years back and moved to the Sacramento Delta, last I heard. "Tup" never heard of digital photos in those days. The Palo Alto Times in 1979 became the Peninsula Times Tribune and began a slow decline and ultimate death in 1993. City Historian Steve Staiger at the Palo Alto Main Library has the newspaper's old clip files, I believe, and the Palo Alto Historical Association has been posting old photos online, but most are much older than the late 1960s. Happy hunting, and let me know if you find anything! -jay

Posted by pat, a resident of ,
on Feb 9, 2012 at 1:37 pm

Jay, you say San Mateo?s population is about 93,000 and Palo Alto?s is about the same, on average, because of the influx of daily workers.

But this is comparing night-time people in San Mateo to daytime people in Palo Alto. Doesn?t San Mateo also have daytime workers?

Posted by Robin, a resident of ,
on Feb 9, 2012 at 1:49 pm

The chief should worry more about improving efficiency (delivering the best job for the public with the ample resources he has at his disposal) and less about trying to raise more taxpayer money.

The dialog should be flowing the other way. The representatives of the people should be holding the chief accountable for the performance of the department. After all, waste and inefficiency, such as those examples cited by Wayne Martin above, are a detriment to public safety and must be rectified.

When our city government is making efficient use of the revenue it has, I'll consider voting for more. As it stands now, purpose-specific spending on improvements (which should have been planned and budgeted for by the government responisbly) really just frees up money to be thrown into the pension pool to pay our retired civil servants their bloated six figure pensions starting at 55.

Posted by Jay Thorwaldson, a resident of ,
on Feb 9, 2012 at 1:49 pm

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

Hi -- There is apparently a slight drop in population during the day in San Mateo, not an increase. Perhaps a number of them are heading to their jobs in Palo Alto? -jay

Posted by svatoid, a resident of ,
on Feb 9, 2012 at 1:54 pm

"about the same size as the San Mateo public-safety building to serve a city of about 93,000 persons.
Palo Alto's population is about the same, on average: It fluctuates from about 64,000 night-time residents up to more than 110,000 daytime occupants, with "significantly larger" numbers in hot economic times."

Not sure where Jay is coming up with his numbers--so he is saying that the population of San Mateo decreases, while the population of goes up by 70% and that does not take into account that many people work outside of the city and the thousands of children that stay in the city and go to school.
Would like to see the source of Jay's math.

Posted by Jay Thorwaldson, a resident of ,
on Feb 9, 2012 at 2:24 pm

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

Svatoid -- The Palo Alto population figures have been around for decades, from U.S. Census data and the City of Palo Alto Planning Department. I've written articles about the immense daily economic "tidal flow" in and out since the late 1960s, as the nighttime population grew slowly from about 56,000 to the current best-guess of 64,000. The daytime population has fluctuated with the economy, and as major firms have moved out of or into town.

The San Mateo figure was quoted by Dennis Burns at the Jan. 21 retreat, who cited the Census -- but it's consistent with estimates I have seen over the years. Let me know if you come up with a better estimate. -jay

Posted by svatoid, a resident of ,
on Feb 9, 2012 at 2:31 pm

WHich decades? Links to the actual data????

" Let me know if you come up with a better estimate. -jay"
Since you are making the claims, why don't you provide the actual data instead of hearsay and "decades" old figures. That is what a real reporter would do.

It;s not at this link:
Web Link
nor here:
Web Link

Posted by Jay Thorwaldson, a resident of ,
on Feb 9, 2012 at 2:44 pm

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

Svatoid -- Well, "since the late 1960s" seems to provide some decades for you to chew on, I would think. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by svatoid, a resident of ,
on Feb 9, 2012 at 3:04 pm

Well, Jay considering that the population of Palo Alto was 58K in 2000 and was probably lower in decades past the numbers you quote (64K and 110K) were surely not valid back then-so no point in claiming they were around for decades. Not sure why you are upset by my asking you to provide some evidence to back up your claims instead of smug, self-satisfied comments like "The Palo Alto population figures have been around for decades" and "I heard it from Burns who heard it from the census".
[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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