And the chief should be committed to civil liberties and be aggressive when it comes to confronting the rising number of hate incidents targeting residents of Black, Jewish and Asian backgrounds.
Those are some of the qualities that residents and members of the city's Human Relations Commission said they want to see in the next leader of the Palo Alto Police Department. They offered these comments on March 10 during the first of three "listening sessions," public hearings scheduled by City Manager Ed Shikada that are designed to solicit community feedback about the qualities they want to see in the next chief.
The public hearings come after Chief Robert Jonsen announced his plan to retire this summer as he seeks to become the next Santa Clara County sheriff. And while most speakers on March 10 refrained from directly criticizing Jonsen, many indicated that they are dissatisfied with the department's recent direction and suggested that it's due for a significant change.
The Rev. Kaloma Smith, chair of the Human Relations Commission, was among them. He pointed to the recent spike in hate incidents around the city as well as current crime trends and argued that to date police department leaders have issued only "institutional responses," which are formal and technical in nature, rather than "community-based responses" in which they actually have honest conversations with concerned residents.
The new chief should be able to have a "real and honest dialogue and responses around police misconduct" and have "a clear vision that is not just a simple institutional response."
"We now are in a time where our city has a deep disconnect with the police force," Smith said. "I have rarely seen a police force where both sides of the aisle can both be disconnected at the same time: those who are worried about policing and safety and those who are worried about civil liberties."
Others were more pointed in their criticism. Aram James, a former public defender and a frequent critic of the police department, said the city has had a "really horrible experience" under Jonsen and alluded to policies that he enacted to cut off public awareness of department actions. These include his move in January 2021 to encrypt all radio communications, a policy that prevents media and residents from monitoring and independently verifying incidents involving police activity.
The switch, which was made without any advance warning, was prompted by a directive from the state Department of Justice that required law enforcement agencies to protect private information such as Social Security numbers and criminal history of individuals involved in police incidents. The DOJ did not, however, require agencies to fully encrypt radio communications, as Palo Alto and other agencies have since done. California Highway Patrol continues to broadcast its radio communication, and officers switch to a secure channel when transmitting sensitive information.
James also criticized the department for its failure to release in a timely fashion video evidence or any reports involving violent arrests, including the 2020 incident in Mountain View in which a police officer directed a canine to repeatedly bite a resident while he was sleeping in a shed during a manhunt for a kidnapping suspect. The resident, Joel Alejo, sued the city and received a $135,000 settlement in January.
"I think it's critical that we have someone who — when they say 'transparency,' when they say 'accountability,' when they say 'integrity,' — that it's not just words coming out of their mouth, that there are actions commensurate with those extraordinary concepts," James said.
Resident Scott O'Neil also alluded to the canine attack and suggested that the department needs "cultural reform." He noted that in recent cases that involved violent arrests, none of the other officers intervened, in seeming violation of department policy.
"If that policy wasn't carried out, was there accountability? Why wasn't it carried out?" O'Neil asked. "Those are all things that land on the police chief's desk first. So I think that's the most important thing: Is this someone who will carry forward the efforts of currently reforming our police department from within?"
Others said the department should look for someone who is skilled at engaging the community, assisting vulnerable residents and understanding the community dynamics. Resident Lynne Chiapella said the chief should encourage casual and positive interactions between officers and residents to prevent a feeling of "them and us."
"I'd hope for a more humanistic kind of culture where we try to solve problems, not create more problems and lawsuits and end up with officers who are afraid to come to work because of a drawing on cement," said Chiapella, alluding to a recent lawsuit from six officers that argued that the city's Black Lives Mural constituted discrimination against them. (A Santa Clara County Superior Court judge dismissed that lawsuit earlier this month.)
Commissioner Michelle Kraus said the individual should also be "tech savvy" and understand Palo Alto's "core being" as a cradle of innovation. Commissioner Patti Regehr noted that when Palo Alto opened Hotel de Zink in 1931, the shelter and food kitchen was named after former Police Chief Howard Zink, who strongly supported the creation of the facility.
She said she hopes the new chief will reflect a similar type of progressive thought about "the character of the community."
"That means protection but also safety of everybody," Regehr said. "Because it is an honor that Hotel de Zink is named after a police chief. I don't think we can be saying that throughout our history recently."
Vice Chair Adriana Eberle, an attorney, said she would like to see the transcripts of candidates' court testimonies and hear their position on radio encryption. She also said she wants to see a leader in the department with experience in working with a diverse population, one who "treats people with dignity, regardless of their color, socioeconomic status, gender, national origin or background."
The new chief will be charged with leading a department that currently has 79 full-time sworn positions and 125.6 total full-time employees, according to Shikada. The search for a new police chief, he said, comes at a "unique time," a time of "extraordinary change in expectations for what both our police force as well as our institution in general does and how we respond to the needs and issues of our community."
He also said that the city hopes to see an internal candidate for the job.
"We do have good quality people within the department," Shikada said. "We hope to have at least one candidate there as well."
The city is planning to hold additional listening sessions at 10 a.m. on Saturday, March 19 and at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 31. To register for the sessions and provide input on the police chief selection process, visit cityofpaloalto.org/PoliceChiefSelection.
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