What exactly these changes are remains a mystery, however, to anyone outside the department. A recent report from the city's independent auditing firm, OIR Group, alludes to them but doesn't explicitly state what has changed. The audit also includes more than a dozen recommendations for improving operations within the department, some of which pertain to use of canines.
But aside from a few exceptions, it fails to say whether the department has accepted these recommendations or plans to do so in the future.
In discussing the audit on Monday night, members of the City Council expressed some frustrations with these omissions and directed the Police Department by a unanimous vote to explicitly address in a written report each of the recommendations that were issued by the two OIR auditors, Michael Gennaco and Stephen Connolly.
The council also authorized a review by OIR Group of the department's recruiting and hiring practices, an audit that was proposed by the department itself.
The latest police audit, which OIR Group released in February, goes over 16 recent incidents, which include nine misconduct allegations, two Taser deployments, two incidents involving use of police canines and three other incidents involving complaints against Palo Alto officers. Its breadth reflected the council's direction last year to greatly expand the types of incidents that auditors are asked to review, which now include all uses of force.
But for Mayor Pat Burt, it also left many questions begging. He pointed to the audit's handling of the Barron Park medical call, which involved a woman who was experiencing stroke-like symptoms. The auditor found that the dispatcher in this case deviated from protocol by asking the 911 caller, a 14-year-old neighbor of the woman, whether he believed she was having a medical or a psychological issue.
The audit also noted that the supervising officer failed to wear her body camera. But even though responders waited for about 14 minutes before rendering aid to the Barron Park resident, the auditors concluded that the officers generally behaved in a reasonable manner.
Burt indicated on Monday that he was unsatisfied with that explanation.
"We had errors in our dispatch; we had a hold on the ambulance arriving at the scene; we had a hold on police arriving at the scene; we had noted an error in the supervisor not wearing a body (camera). We had a home search while we had someone in a serious medical condition who was unarmed, not a physical threat, and yet all these things occurred in the same incident in a succession," Burt said.
"When we have so many things go wrong in succession, can they really be (a fluke) or are these things that indicate that we had at least a pattern of serious problems that needed to be corrected?"
Burt asked what policies the Police Department had modified after the incident to make sure these mistakes are not repeated. But before anyone from the department could respond, City Manager Ed Shikada discouraged council members from pursuing such details.
The auditors' reports, which are vetted by the police union and which omit any names, strike a "careful balance" between providing descriptions of events and allowing the city to fulfill its responsibilities "as an employer for the personnel related dimensions that are in those reports," Shikada said.
Shikada also alluded to the council's efforts in 2020 to modify various policies in the Police Department to better align with the "8 Can't Wait" platform, which urges de-escalation. He called those hearings "a very thoughtful and largely a very extensive discussion and opportunity for thoughtful consideration on the part of both the council and the department."
Police Chief Robert Jonsen said the department "identified several issues around communication, dispatch and staging of personnel for emergency response."
He also noted that when the department changes its policies, it generally doesn't "broadcast" these changes to the community.
That could soon change. The council directed the department to address each of the recommendations in the OIR report and provide more information about the policy changes that the report alludes to. Assistant Chief Andrew Binder said Monday that the department will issue such a report in response to the audit.
Some of the new policies are directly related to the dog attack on Joel Alejo, an incident that prompted the council to approve a $135,000 settlement with him in January. The audit found that the officer did not issue any warnings when he entered the shed where Alejo was sleeping and did not identify himself as an officer before the attack. While the audit took issue with some of the officer's conduct, it concluded that he did not explicitly violate the department's policies on canine use — policies that were subsequently updated.
"The review of that case was that the policy in regard to using canines provided not enough guidance and too much discretion to canine handlers," Gennaco said. "Canine trainers were trained to sort of use the canines the best way they knew how. That sometimes works but sometimes doesn't work.
"And in this case, the department realized there was a need to tighten up the policy. We added a few other ideas to further tighten up the policies so that the likelihood of a mistake being made with regard to someone being bitten by mistake is reduced significantly."
According to the audit, the new policy further reinforces the need for officers to identify themselves as such unless "specific and articulable facts exist to indicate that making the announcement would increase the risk of injury to officers or the public." The department also eliminated language that "excuses the absence of an announcement when there is an increased risk of escape," according to the audit.
Under the policy that the council approved Monday, the Police Department will issue a supplemental report with each future police audit indicating whether it agrees or disagrees with the auditor's recommendations.
The council also supported asking OIR Group to take a close look at the city's hiring and recruiting practices, a review that was recommended by Jonsen. The audit would come at a time when the city is actively recruiting new officers as part of the council's effort to restore some of the staffing cuts that it made in 2020 to adjust to falling revenues.
"It's something we're very active in," Jonsen said, referring to the city's recruiting efforts. "And if we can do it better and if there's a best practice and we're just not familiar with that Mike (Gennaco) is aware of — that can help benefit us in the future."
Gennaco, who has worked with other departments on recruiting, suggested that hiring officers is one of the most critical functions that a police department performs. He also plans to advise Shikada during his search for Jonsen's successor. Jonsen plans to retire this summer and is a candidate to succeed Laurie Smith as Santa Clara County sheriff.
"That process is really critical to ensuring that, to the degree possible, the entries, the new candidates, the new hires, the recruits align with the goals, objectives and intentions of reimagining policing in your city, which is part of what your dialogue has been over the past two years," Gennaco said.
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