Barron Park resident Ann Pianetta, like many other Palo Altans, has issues in her neighborhood with parking. When she joined the new police Chief's Advisory Group, she found it gave her unprecedented access to get results she hadn't thought possible.
"I thought, 'How great to know the chief?' I liked the idea of people in the neighborhoods getting to connect with him directly if there's a problem," she said of Chief Robert Jonsen.
When parked cars near street intersections began blocking drivers' views, Pianetta wrote an email to Jonsen about the issue and they met. Within a week, she saw an officer looking over the situation.
"I feel much more connected to Palo Alto this way. Before, I never felt they ever cared before," said Pianetta, a retired medical hypnotherapist.
Jonsen, who took over as the city's top cop in 2018, convened the group to help build community participation and identify issues of importance on a granular level. The advisory group, which met for the first time in November, was supposed to be limited to 16 members. But residents' eagerness caused Jonsen to double the group' size to 32 — including all who applied, he said.
Residents and business people are now alerting the department to unresolved problems and providing feedback on key issues that will affect the department's policy, from parking and traffic to the use of video cameras in patrol cars and on officers' uniforms.
The members range in age from 36 to 77 years old and include attorneys, health care professionals, small-business owners, scientists, technologists, a senior Olympian, a human resources manager, a former Palo Alto Council of PTAs president, a real estate agent, an artist and retirees.
The group meets every two months and has representatives covering most neighborhoods across Palo Alto.
With just three meetings under their belts, participants said they are impressed with the chief's responsiveness and each other's commitment. Each had a slightly different reason for joining, but there are many overlaps, the most common being familiarity with the department's Citizens Police Academy training.
Pianetta said she enrolled in the citizens academy to learn how Palo Alto police work to take care of the city. Joining the chief's group was a logical next step.
Since officers can't be everywhere, the group helps the chief understand neighborhood needs, she said.
Alan Bennett, a retired physicist and research and development manager, is one of four advisers from the Old Palo Alto district and also an academy alum. During a meeting about traffic and parking, he suggested adding a stop sign at a dangerous location.
Last week, the group discussed policy on patrol-car and body-worn cameras. Some members went through the policy carefully, he said.
"On the whole, it is a well-thought-out policy," he added.
Adobe Meadow resident Al Dorsky, a retired chemist, said joining the group meant he could represent his neighborhood — and tie in his education and planning work with the city's Emergency Services Volunteer program.
"It's a good thing to be connected to the police department," he said. "We're getting inside information — that's the main thing."
John Guislin, a Crescent Park resident, has long advocated for a safer Middlefield Road, spearheading an ultimately successful campaign to get the city to take action. When the advisory group's first topic included looking at where the department needs more traffic enforcement, he was impressed. As traffic has increased, reckless driving has also increased, he said. The group plans to send the chief a list of troubled intersections for each neighborhood.
The department also presented a report to the group about the nationwide opioid crisis and what Palo Alto police are doing about the problem locally, he said.
During his encounters with Jonsen, the chief "came across as very clear. He's an excellent communicator," Guislin said, adding he was impressed with the chief's command and management of his department.
"To date this group has been a very positive example of how to harness citizen engagement for public benefit," he said.
The chief is equally satisfied with his group.
"I'm very impressed with the engagement level of the community members and their willingness to help us enhance the way we serve the public," he said in an email statement to the Weekly.
The department is reviewing the group's suggestions on traffic enforcement and the Field-Based Video Policy, which includes cameras on patrol cars and the body-worn cameras, to see if any changes should be incorporated, he said.
While advisory members have expressed satisfaction with their participation, the group has come under criticism on one front: The meetings are not open to the public.
According to Jonsen, the group is informal — not a political body like a committee or a board. In previous interviews, he said he wanted to keep the group focused.
But, he said, if anyone wants to give input or suggest a discussion item, they are welcome to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The department will ensure the message is shared with the whole group, including the chief.
As an informal group, the advisers so far have not been uniformly communicating the substance of their discussions to their fellow neighbors. Pianetta said her neighborhood has multiple representatives in the group, and though there's no formal communication strategy, neighbors know she is in the group and can reach out to her.
Bennett likewise said he knows the neighbors on his block and they him.
"People don't hesitate to speak up with problems," he said.
Dorsky, however, did formally reach out to his neighbors. So far, he hasn't heard anything back, but he is hoping they'll come to him with ideas or suggestions. As a longtime emergency-services volunteer, he knows the importance of neighbors reaching out to each other.
In an emergency, it's vital to understand a community's needs. That's especially true for the police department, and for residents to better understand how the department functions.
"It's the driving reason" he joined the advisory group, he said.
Who is part of the chief's group? Members of the advisory group and the areas they represent are:
Adobe Meadow: Paul Koo, Albert Dorsky
Barron Park: Laura Porter, Joe Landers, Ann Pianetta, Yvonne Boxerman
Charleston Meadow: Jennifer Zimmerman
College Terrace: Susanna Hursh
Community Center: Cathie Foster
Crescent Park: Hamilton Hitchings Jr., Evan G. Reade, John Guislin
Downtown North: Pat Markevitch
Duveneck/St. Francis: Andrew D. MacKenzie, Vycelka Gatto, Hamilton Hitchings Jr.
Evergreen Park: Sophie Tsang
Greenmeadow: Carol Turner
Midtown: Eric Newman, Jake L. Olsen, Jonathan Keeling, David Wills, David E. Gobuty
Old Palo Alto: George Richard, Kathleen Jason-Moreau, Alan Bennett, Michelle Robell
St. Claire Gardens: Carl Darling
Southgate: Peter Shambora
Triple El: Dana Wong
University South: Ardan Blum