Ever wish you could hear what people say about you when you aren't around? We do. And sometimes we find out. Internal emails from the Palo Alto Police Department show an agency on the defensive, trying to address criticisms through memos and friendly local press rather than speaking to our reporters.
Last summer, the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit reported on alleged mismanagement issues within the Palo Alto Police Department(PAPD). Anonymous sources fearing retaliation told reporter Vicky Nguyen that there was an "unofficial quota" at PAPD and that, "some officers have been threatened with punishments if their statistics are low." The emails we obtained show a culture where statistics are so closely tied to performance goals, even city administrators are confused as to whether quotas are used or not.
The department coolly refused multiple interview requests for Police Chief Dennis Burns. Palo Alto's Mayor Nancy Shepherd referred an interview request to City Manager Jim Keene, who never responded.
"Feel free to send me any concerns you've heard, and we will be happy to look into them," wrote PAPD spokesperson Zach Perron, "but please know that we would do that through the existing procedures we have in place for such things, not in an interview."
Chief Burns eventually answered a few questions during an impromptu interview as he walked back to his office after a lunch at Gordon Biersch. He never did sit down with the Investigative Unit for a proper interview and has not accepted the open request we've extended to him and Palo Alto leaders.
This kind of response isn't unusual. But when a public agency dismisses serious criticism in this way, viewers can get the impression that leaders are simply above the fray: more or less uninterested in the allegations raised by whistleblowers in their own department.
The department's internal emails show this is far from the case. After our story aired, the Investigative Unit made a California Public Records Act request for emails between department leaders relating to our investigation, as well as the subject of quotas and officer statistics. We've published everything the agency gave us online.
The emails show an agency aggressively trying to protect its image and reputation all while refusing to give comment to NBC Bay Area reporters.
Even before the story has aired, the police station is strategizing. Staff obsessively follow social media to gauge the public's reaction. "Bay Area's Facebook page has changed their background photo to promote the story," notes spokesperson Perron in an email to the top three PAPD managers: Chief Dennis Burns, Assistant Chief Bob Beacom and Captain Ron Watson.
After the story airs, City Councilman Patrick Burt checks in using his personal email:
"I wonder what our best tactic should be with KRON," writes Burt, confusing NBC Bay Area with the channel 4 news station.
PAPD Chief Communications Officer Claudia Keith responds the next morning, "We are monitoring social media and online conversations to see if the story gets any traction beyond one day follow up story in local papers-definitely balance between wanting to correct the record and not give the story more play."
When the local papers come through, PAPD shifts to the offensive and tries to feed other reporters information they never asked about. "I also gave you a bunch of information on a portion of the NBC story about which you did not specifically ask," writes Perron to a reporter at the Palo Alto Weekly. He forwards burglary statistics along with a breakdown of numbers.
The department seemed blindsided by NBC's use of burglary data and sought to manage public opinion in the local press instead of in an interview with NBC Bay Area reporters.
"We did not know in advance that she was just going to use that one year [of burglary data]" wrote Claudia Keith to Councilman Burt. "The PD has been working with the Post and Weekly who are both doing follow on stories, and providing them with the most recent information on 2013 and 2014, so the community will have the accurate picture and context."
The Investigative Unit reported that in the years leading up to a devastating 2013 internal survey, total burglaries were on the rise in Palo Alto. PAPD would have preferred the The Investigative Unit separated out commercial and residential burglaries, as well as use numbers for years after the survey, which were lower.
However, the bulk of the Investigative Unit's story was on the survey itself, in which officers expressed low levels of trust of in their managers and claimed that "unofficial quotas" forced them to focus more on traffic tickets and less on patrolling neighborhoods to prevent burglaries.
The emails contain Captain Ron Watson's six-month "Officer Activity Reports," which detail individual officers' statistical performance. These reports are sent directly to the officers and are largely positive. "I noticed that you led your team in every category including 34 arrests and 88 reports," reads a typical email. "Its clear you (sic) keeping yourself busy and helping out in all areas."
"Keeping busy" is a common refrain in these emails. Many end with "Thanks for your activity." It seems clear that Watson is not referring to a literal quota, which is highly illegal. But it's also clear that statistics--"activity"--are what animate this department. Officers whose statistics are high are asked to apply for promotions.
"I will not draw any conclusions based solely on the productivity numbers outlined in the six-month Officer Activity Report," writes Captain Watson in an internal memo dated January 2012. "With this in mind, I will be requesting a thorough review of an officer's performance if there's some indication that their activity level at mid-year may not be meeting the established goals and expectations."
There's obviously a difference between a quota and "goals and expectations." But what exactly is that difference?
A city administrator had a hard time figuring that out after a "Performance Appraisal" class in 2013. In a follow-up email, City of Palo Alto Human Resources Representative Theresa Moreno actually tries to hammer out HR policy on quotas with Captain Watson. She asks him to consider a scenario: "If there is a difference between the day and the night shift assignments, then their quotas can be different because they are on 2 different shifts." Seems reasonable, no?
In a reply, Watson has to remind Moreno that PAPD does not actually have a "quota", "as those are illegal in California."
Moreno thanks Watson for the clarification, but is still a little confused. "I thought there was a number that had to be met.", she replies. "I'll get back to you on this."
Investigative reporter Vicky Nguyen has alerted PAPD to this blog post and has asked for an interview on why HR might be confused about whether the department has a quota or not. Chief Burns declined an interview but department spokesperson Zachary Perron sent us the following:
There is no “secret mandate” and there is no “unofficial quota.” Not only are quotas illegal in California (§§41600-41603 VC), but they are also prohibited by our policy (§500.3 of our Policy Manual, available online at https://www.cityofpaloalto.org/civicax/filebank/documents/38381). Quotas do not exist in our Department. We have not, do not, and will not endorse quotas of any kind.
The Investigative Unit's requests for interviews with Palo Alto leaders are explicitly open-ended and remain open today.