In the Public Interest
Answering community questions on police department procedures and related topics
By Chief Robert Jonsen, Palo Alto Police Department
I wanted to take a moment to address some community questions on police department procedures and related items. This communication answers questions on a few topics of community interest that were discussed at the April 5 Council Study Session.
LOOK BACK ON THE PAST YEAR
Over the past year, nationally, there has been an increased focus on law enforcement and the actions of police officers and police departments. Here in Palo Alto, that has been no different, and we have welcomed that increased attention. My staff and I have participated in many City Council meetings, Human Relations Commission meetings, community meetings, Chief’s Advisory Group meetings, and more to hear concerns, answer questions, explain current policies and procedures, and make adjustments, when necessary. We also produced a series of informational videos on our YouTube channel to provide information on Palo Alto Police Department accountability measures, use of force investigation procedures, and other complex topics and issues.
In early April, I made a study session presentation before the City Council updating them on many topics about the Police Department and the happenings of the past year, all of which occurred during a year when our operating budget was reduced significantly. You can read the staff report from that Council Meeting online; you can also view the presentation that accompanied the report.
The meeting video is available here:
At the study session, I took a moment to look back on ways that the department has expanded public information, online reporting and focused on race and equity.
NEW REPORTING & PUBLIC INFORMATION ACCESS ONLINE
In December, the Police Department launched a new online reporting tool, giving the public the ability to file their own online police reports for a wide array of minor crimes and non-injury traffic collisions. The tool has been extremely well-received by the public; in the first three months, the system received more than 250 reports filed online, increasing convenience for the public. For more information about the online reporting tool, visit www.cityofpaloalto.org/onlinereports.
In 2020, the Department launched the new Public Information Portal on its website. The portal is a hub from which the public can view news releases, crime statistics, the Department’s Policy Manual, all of the open data published to the Police Data Initiative, monthly activity reports, and more. The portal also includes information that the Department is required to disclose under the new state laws Senate Bill 1421 and Assembly Bill 748 in cases that involve officer-involved shootings, uses of force that result in death or great bodily injury, sustained findings of sexual assault, and sustained findings of dishonesty. Dating back to January 1, 2014, there are three cases that qualify under those State criteria; the portal includes information and video from these three cases. To view the Public Information Portal, visit www.cityofpaloalto.org/PAPDinfo.
RACE & EQUITY ACTIONS
Following a series of community engagement opportunities and City Council ad hoc conversations that concluded in the fall, the City Council adopted new actions related to race and equity including police reform measures. For the most recent status update on the City’s race and equity efforts, including several changes to police procedures and other police data collection items, review the March 9, 2021 report to the Policy and Services Committee here.
We will be before the Policy and Services Committee in June with additional race and equity updates including an update on our implementation of the RMS data collection system and updates about the City’s efforts to pursue alternative response models for mental health-related calls for service (e.g., PERT and CAHOOTS).
The Department is also continuing its collaboration with Stanford’s Social Psychological Answers to Real-World Questions (SPARQ) program, focused on strengthening relationships between the Department and the Palo Alto community and increasing the performance, commitment, and safety of Palo Alto police officers.
Additionally, the Police Department has also reported about recent hate crimes in the community and have encouraged the community to report other hate crimes observed so the department can investigate those cases just like any other crime observed in town. Go here for a recent blog post asking for the community’s help with reporting hate crimes in our community.
HANDLING MEDIA INQUIRIES AND SHARING PUBLIC INFORMATION
I briefly discussed our media inquiry procedures at the April 5 City Council meeting and much of the Council discussion was limited to how the Police Department has continued to provide public information to the community following the elimination of our full-time Public Affairs Manager position at the end of July 2020. Since then, other staff members have stepped up to continue to respond to press inquiries, distribute news releases, post information on our website (like crime statistics, monthly activity reports, and our Policy Manual), and manage many social media platforms to ensure the public is aware of police activities and ways to stay safe.
Daily Police Log Published & Reassigned Staff to Support Media Inquiries
While we’ve been forced to change how we handle media inquiries due to budget challenges, our commitment to respond and provide timely information has not changed. The community may not be aware that our department (like many departments) publishes a Police Report Log online every business day, which is essentially our version of a police blotter. This helps media and members of the public understand the crimes investigated and can be used by media to ask more questions about an incident that occurred.
Last summer, three things occurred to cause us to transition to a new temporary operating procedure for handling media inquiries: the elimination of the Public Affairs Manager position; a renewed commitment to have our sergeants in the field actively supervising our field personnel (not in the police station, reviewing reports to distill the legally-releasable information); and a necessity to have our officers in the field responding to calls and conducting patrols due to reduced staffing levels. As a result, we re-assigned public information duties to our two patrol Watch Commanders, police lieutenants who have command responsibility over our patrol division.
New Expedited Web Form Process Deployed
We appreciate the media’s flexibility in using a web form to submit their initial request. This helps us immediately route the information to those charged with responding, so they can research the inquiry and respond to the reporter. Our Watch Commanders strive to answer the inquiry as soon as they can, and the responses most often occur within 24 hours (and frequently within a handful of hours). This is the same timing as before our staffing reductions.
Of course, responses are quicker on a police incident where there is a danger to public safety, or on a case where we have proactively distributed a news release. The web form allows us to keep track of the inquiries to ensure they are handled properly and in a timely way. Reporters who have follow-up questions are welcome to continue the conversation with the Watch Commander who responds to their inquiry, to ensure that all of their questions are appropriately addressed, and they have the information they need to complete their story.
Critical Incident Public Information Continues
Importantly, in the event of a critical incident, I designate someone to act as a public information officer during those specific events. The person serving in that capacity will be available for on-camera or radio interviews, and will be charged with releasing critical public safety details in as timely a way as possible. Fortunately, these sorts of critical incidents are exceptionally rare in our community.
With any new procedure or protocol, though, the possibility of some growing pains always exists. Our new media inquiry system experienced its first significant hiccup during the first week of April 2021, when our two watch commanders happened to be unavailable on consecutive work weeks due to a combination of training and vacation. This led to a delayed response to three inquiries from the Daily Post on five police incidents, and an inquiry from the Palo Alto Weekly about one police incident. Staff eventually responded, albeit belatedly, to both the Daily Post and the Weekly, and provided an explanation about what had occurred to cause this delay. We have since solidified our internal communication procedures to ensure that does not happen again.
Proactive News Releases Issued on Significant Police Cases
We are continuing to proactively issue news releases on the most significant cases to which our officers respond. Typically, those include felony person crimes that occur in public with a nexus to a public safety concern (e.g. a street robbery committed by an armed suspect), select felony person crimes that occur in private homes (e.g. homicide), fatal injury traffic collisions, and any other case where a proactive release of information would benefit the community and allow people to better provide for their own safety. The community is welcome to view all of our news releases by visiting www.cityofpaloalto.org/PAPDnews. In addition to e-mailing news releases directly to media partners, they are also distributed directly to the public via social media using Twitter and Nextdoor, and via e-mail using Nixle.
It’s also important to note that our media partners can make an inquiry to us about any incident about which they become aware — they do not have to wait until a case appears on our Police Report Log before they contact us. For example, if a reporter learns of an incident by reading posts from neighbors on Nextdoor, or if they witness a police response to a particular location, they are more than welcome to reach out to us to ask what is going on. We are happy to answer questions, and frequently do.
UPDATE ON RADIO ENCRYPTION
While much discussion has occurred surrounding my decision to move the Police Department’s radio frequency to an encrypted one to protect personal identifying information and comply with a state mandate, it is important for our community to know that the Fire Department’s radio channels are not encrypted, despite what has been reported by some media sources. The Police Department’s decision to encrypt had no impact on the Fire Department at all, since they do not broadcast personal information. The public, and the media, can still listen to the Fire Department’s radio to learn about major incidents, blocked roads, trees down, and more in real time. They can also download the free PulsePoint app to live-track all Fire Department calls for service.
The City Council recently approved a recommendation to use grant funding to further explore alternatives to broadcast police call data. While we do that and have future conversations with the City Council and community about concepts, we will continue to remain in compliance with the state mandate not to broadcast the personal identifying information of those with whom we come into contact on an open radio frequency.
It should be noted that we are not the first agency to move to encrypting radio transmissions due to state mandate, as noted by Eric Nickel, the executive director of the Silicon Valley Regional Interoperability Authority: “More than half the agencies, seven to be precise, representing 80 percent of the population of Santa Clara County were encrypting law enforcement radio communication before Palo Alto. It is more accurate to describe Palo Alto as one of the last agencies to transition to encryption.”
Further, we reached out to the Department to Justice to request a delay in encryption. We have not heard back on this request. What the community may have missed from this discussion earlier in the year is that police departments who fail to follow the mandate will be limited by the State to access to their databases and other tools for us to protect the community and investigate public safety incidents. Our goal is to ensure public safety and provide accurate and timely public information. We are always looking at ways to do this and balance both priorities. To learn more about my decision to encrypt the Police Department’s radio channels, read this article I wrote about it at the time, and please know that my staff is continuing to explore alternatives.
As our region begins to recover from the effects of the global health emergency, it is my earnest hope that the City’s financial outlook will eventually improve to the point that we will be able to restore all of the many services we have had to temporarily curtail in the Police Department. In the meantime, and until we can get back to that point, we will continue to handle media requests in the best way we’re able, while simultaneously keeping the overall mission of the Department and our fundamental priorities as a police agency, to serve and protect the people of Palo Alto, at the forefront of our minds.
The women and men of the Palo Alto Police Department will continue to do their very best to serve you and keep you and your families as safe as possible.