On Monday, April 5, the police chief of Minneapolis, Medaria Arradondo, was testifying at the George Floyd trial about his professional view that defendant Derek Chauvin's actions in the case were unethical and against police policy. That same day, Palo Alto's Police Chief Robert Jonsen was also under his City Council's scrutiny concerning the loss of police department transparency in a city that demands police openness.
Jonsen imposed a new encryption policy on Jan. 6 without public or city council knowledge. He was acting, he said, on a state Department of Justice (DOJ) order that police encrypt all personal information (license number, date of birth, police background) from any radio transmission. The DOJ order also said if a way can be found to omit that private information from these radio transmissions, encryption was not needed. Jonsen opted for total encryption, which prevents the press from listening to daily police activity.
Without access to police radio broadcasts, it is hard to find out about police conduct. How does the press or the public get to know what's happening in town? Such lack of access to the police is, in my estimation, against the First Amendment.
At the Monday, April 5, council meeting, to the dismay of many of us, Jonsen kept on saying that any change from the current status was "complicated," would take a long time, would be very hard to do, would endanger our relationships with other cities, etc. In other words, he didn't want to do it. Even toggling (jumping for one communication channel to another) was "a very complicated approach."
Yes, he wanted to keep his new self-imposed encryption policy intact. The City Council is the policy maker in most instances, but it has let the police department do its own thing. Despite a declaration of a transparent department, it is getting more opaque.
There are several incidents within the last couple of years (Jonsen took over as chief in 2018) that show the police department closing its doors to the public and press — all very upsetting and inappropriate for this community:
• Encrypting all police radio transmissions to the press and public. Such police exchanges have been available for years.
• "Police dog bites man": Mountain View police were looking for a suspect and called in the Palo Alto police dog and handler, Officer Nick Enberg. The dog sniffed something in the backyard. Enberg saw a sleeping person in a shed and told the dog to attack. The sleeper — Joel Alejo woke up with a snarling dog in his face. He stood up and then Enberg told the dog to attack again, never saying a word yet to Alejo, whose leg by now was bitten.
Mountain View police arrived and told Enberg that Alejo was not the person they were looking for. Alejo sued.
The incident was never made public, but the suit was, and the public learned about it in the Palo Alto Daily Post about four months later. Why not a police report? Palo Alto police said the man was not injured enough to report it. But if you read the police blog, all sorts of incidents are reported — stolen bikes, fender benders, etc. Why in the world keep something like a police dog bite closeted? Because, I suspect, it's embarrassing for the police department, and Jonsen doesn't want that. Nothing happened to Enberg, who is still on staff working as a dog handler.
• To find out about a crime or an incident, a reporter typically talks to a lieutenant or the press officer on duty. Well, Jonsen has declared that the press can no longer talk to any police officer — they must submit their question online to the department, and "someone will get back that day or the next." Do you know what that means if you are reporting a story? "Was anyone killed in a big accident on Middlefield?" I might ask. Or, "Why are the burglary rates increasing so much?" If a reporter gets an answer that needs more clarification, he or she cannot call the police but must submit a new question to the department and wait for another reply in 24 hours. So, the public might not find out about the big accident until four or five days later.
• The police had to cut its budget, and one of the jobs Jonsen eliminated was the public communications slot. Public communications? Sure sounds like another way to eliminate press access to the department.
• There's much more. A 2019 report from the outside police auditor was not made public until earlier this year. A council member asked why. No response yet that I know about.
Bravo to the questions and suggestions from Mayor Tom DuBois and Vice Mayor Pat Burt on Monday. They seemed truly concerned with what was happening, as did Council member Greer Stone, and their suggestions for what to do next were good ones.
City Manager Ed Shikada was at the meeting. I may be reading him wrong, but it seems that he agreed with Jonsen that it would be difficult and complicated to change things. But Shikada hasn't done an outstanding job in having the Utilities Department provide any detailed information about all the recent power outages.
So, what happens next? DuBois indicates there will be a council meeting covering this topic, which is good. But we need more than that because the opaque cover of city business is getting darker and darker. I don't think the council can do the investigation by itself — maybe a panel of community experts can contribute.
People, we have a problem in this city. We need to recognize that and work hard to solve it.