By Diana Diamond
Does Palo Alto City Hall have a new cover-up culture?Uploaded: Sep 25, 2019
What is happening to Palo Alto’s officials, most notably City Manager Ed Shikada, who ordered all city employees not to talk to the press about a June 3 911 call involving a 54-year-old resident who said she was having a stroke. She was alone, ran outside to ask a neighborhood teen to call for help, and then her problems really stated. The paramedics arrived, but were told by the dispatcher to wait for police because she may have mental problems. The police finally arrived, eight minutes later, and one policewoman kept on asking her whether she had been drinking or was on drugs. The woman kept on begging paramedics and police to take her immediately to the hospital for help. It took 14 minutes before she was put into the ambulance.
The woman was then diagnosed as having had a seizure because of a brain tumor.
The Weekly reported this in its Friday, Sept. 20 edition, and I urge you to read it if you haven’t already (https://www.paloaltoonline.com/square/2019/09/20/on-the-ground-and-suffering-a-seizure-a-palo-alto-woman-pleaded-to-be-taken-to-the-hospital-but-police-kept-paramedics-from-helping-her-for-14-long-minutes).
Her case was totally mishandled by the dispatcher, the police and perhaps the paramedics for seemingly not insisting to the police that the woman needed help. And to have kept the paramedics away from the patient for 10 minutes because she may be mentally imbalanced is ludicrous, considering the woman was in her pajamas and slippers, without a purse, sitting on the ground in pain. How could the paramedics and police be afraid of a petite 54-year-old woman?
I am relieved that she lived.
But I want to discuss not only the policy and procedural rules that we not followed by the police, but also Shikada’s clampdown at city hall. He has insisted that no one at city hall talk to the press on this topic, including the police chief and the fire chief. This is a great concern to me, and I worry what it means for the future -- if the handling of situations like this is not fully corrected. And I wonder what stonewalling of the press means for the future transparency of our city government? Keeping things away from the press means the city is keeping things away from the people.
I’ve been a journalist for a long time, and for two decades I’ve been covering the Peninsula, particularly Palo Alto, as a reporter, a columnist and an editor. I worked for the Palo Alto Weekly, The Daily Post and the Palo Alto Daily News.
I can’t remember ever seeing such a total ban against press contact by the city managers or police chiefs. This is something new in Palo Alto.
Obviously, this was a situation where the city really screwed up a couple of times. The dispatcher called for the paramedics, but then within the next minute called the teenager q asking if the woman was mentally upset or had psychotic problems.
The teen said, maybe, but he wasn’t sure. The dispatcher called the police to tell them this might be a 5150 case (psychiatric issue rather than a medical problem), and that’s where all the troubles – and the delays – started. Why did the dispatcher call the teen back? Why did s/he keep the paramedics away? The city’s policy is for paramedics to stay away if there’s a violent situation is a threat or danger to them being hurt. That doesn’t seem to be relevant here. And none of the bystanders were asked to move away.
Why were the cameras on the police car not working and the voice recordings having problems?
Why did Shikada tell the press at first that only written questions would be answered? I was always reluctant to submit written questions because then there was no opportunity for a follow-up question, or a request for clarification. I’d submit a question at 9 a.m. and get a reply at 5 p.m. When I called back, the department chief had “gone home.”
This is not the way a smart city like ours should be operating. I thought we still believed in transparency and an open government.
Shikada and City Attorney Molly Stump, who worked on what to tell the newspapers, kept on changing their minds about what press questions they would answer. Doing so only suggests that they may have something to hide. I hope not, but that’s what one suspects when there is not free communication between the press and city officials.
I’ve been told that the city could be worried about a lawsuit from the woman, and therefore might be reluctant to answer press questions. Yet the city always has suits facing it, and while it’s not particularly fun to encounter and protect the city in these suits, most are about land issues or zoning issues, not how a police/paramedic call was handled. And does this suggest the city is going to remain silent on all lawsuits filed? What does that mean for Palo Alto.
The city was wrong in the way this case was handled. What would be wrong in admitting that, saying it is sorry to the 54-year-old whose life was may have been in jeopardy because she did not receive immediate treatment. We all make mistakes and it’s best if we admit them upfront.
And where is the city council on this? Mayor Eric Filseth, who received a call from the woman’s husband, said he had several conversations with Shikada, mostly about staging issues (the long delay of having the paramedics tending the woman because the police were asking her questions about her use of drugs and alcohol [she didn’t drink for 30 years). The other six council members were called by the Weekly for comment. Council members Liz Kniss, Aaron Fine and Greg Tanaka did not return the Weekly’s call. Alison Cormack declined to say how she had learned about the incident or what steps she thought the city should now take. Lydia Kou was concerned that she found out from the public, but not from city officials. Tom Dubois said he heard from those concerned about what happened, but still needs to find out more facts from city officials. This is the council’s responsibility to find out what happened, and why, and to make sure that procedures have been changed and in what ways they are being monitored.
The woman called the dispatchers on June 3. It is now the end of September and we know little more about what happened. Maybe it’s time to get the police-auditing firm to look into this.
What has prompted the lack of communication with the public? Perhaps it’s the culture at city hall; is it becoming a cover-up culture?
Anyone of us could be that person sitting on the street in pain, begging the paramedics to be taken to the hospital.
P.S. Sue Dremann was the Weekly reporter who wrote this story. She did an excellent job, in my opinion, and covered so many aspects quite thoroughly. Thank you,Sue!