For Palo Alto's new Police Chief Andrew Binder, the learning curve shouldn't be particularly steep.
Binder, who spent 18 years in law enforcement in the city of San Jose before joining Palo Alto Police Department in 2015, was at the forefront of the department's recent effort to reform its policies in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in May 2020. And when former Chief Robert "Bob" Jonsen announced his plan to resign earlier this year so that he could run for Santa Clara County sheriff, he tapped then-Assistant Chief Binder to serve as Palo Alto's top cop on an acting basis.
On Monday night, Binder officially shed the "acting" title after the City Council voted 6-1, with council member Greg Tanaka opposing, to endorse City Manager Ed Shikada's appointment of Binder to be the new police chief. Mayor Pat Burt, who made the motion to approve the appointment, credited Binder for fostering the department's transformation and getting its rank and file to buy into "things that many police departments have struggled to implement."
"It's not easy getting a law enforcement agency all the way down through the unions and the grassroots to accept changes that they might have been reluctant to make," Burt said. "They didn't understand why they, in many cases, were feeling under attack in the last couple of years, and yet to have them buy into the necessity and importance and value of this whole set of reforms is, I think, a very significant accomplishment, both for the chief and the department as a whole."
With the appointment, Binder will receive an initial gross base annual salary of $295,484. Tanaka casted a no vote after raising some concerns about the details of the contract, including the number of vacation hours that a chief is slated to receive. Binder's contract entitles him to 200 hours of vacation, same as that of his predecessor, Jonsen.
Binder's appointment followed a recruitment process that included interviews with a 16-member panel of community members and law enforcement experts. Several members of the group addressed the council Monday and urged members to approve Binder's appointment. Winter Dellenbach, a proponent of recent police reforms on use of force and accountability, said the hiring process was well-designed and worthy of public trust.
She called Binder a "smart, strong leader" and the best choice for the job.
"He is committed to supporting our police policies and accountability reforms, passed since 2020, and he's willing to consider more, if needed, to increase equity," Dellenbach said.
Aram James, a frequent critic of the Police Department, urged the council not to approve the contract. Though he had no objections to Binder, he said he was opposed to the recruitment process created by Shikada because it did not give the general public a chance to question the finalists for the job.
"A blue-ribbon commission, one that meets behind closed doors, all of whom signed confidentiality not to discuss what took place during the hiring, is not the same as having the press and the community and the council be able to question in open session the three finalists," James said.
Others argued that confidentiality was necessary to attract a strong field of candidates.
"The reason it's confidential is because a lot of these people are employed at other police departments and have not told their bosses they're searching and do not want this to be public information," said resident Hamilton Hitchings, who also served on the interview panel.
Like Dellenbach, Hitchings said that he strongly supports Binder's appointment and praised the new chief's work ethic and commitment to reform.
"He has been the primary driver of extensive, lasting reforms and improvements to the department over the last few years," Hitchings said. "He embodies Bay Area values."
Binder didn't wait for the Monday appointment to make his first major policy change. Last Thursday, he announced that the department will soon reverse the highly controversial policy that it adopted in January 2021 of encrypting all police radio communication. Under the new policy, which Binder said would be implemented before Sept. 1, officers will communicate on the open channel and adopt new policies for protecting personal information over radio transmission in order to comply with a recent directive from the state Department of Justice.
Council members Greer Stone and Tom DuBois both lauded the new policy change, which Stone said reflects Binder's strong leadership and fearlessness.
"This speaks volumes, especially for someone in your position to be able to step out there in such a public way," Stone said.
Binder said it was really important to him to give the community access to what the police are doing. He lauded department employees and said he was proud of the work they do.
"We don't always get it right and I'm the first willing to admit that," Binder said. "One of the things I'm really proud of is we have a track record, I think, as proven by the encryption thing, where we're always looking to better ourselves or improve."
He acknowledged the heavy scrutiny that comes with the job, but said he is up to the task.
"Accountability starts with me. I recognize that as a leader of this department," Binder said. "The city manager will hold me accountable, the council will hold me accountable, the community will hold me accountable. I'm not afraid of that."