They’re sworn to protect and serve, but members of a Bay Area police agency say the leadership at their department is choosing public image over public safety. Sources from within the Palo Alto Police Department reached out to the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit, to expose an agency practice designed to stave off budget cuts that they call unethical and illegal.
Officers first raised concerns in January 2013, when 45 officers of the 80 member team responded to an internal survey telling management what’s working and what’s not. Among their concerns, officers questioned the added pressure to write more traffic tickets or face consequences, calling it an “unofficial quota.”
They said the pressure to write more tickets led some officers to avoid patrolling neighborhoods and parks, turning instead to high traffic areas where they could boost their ticket numbers.
It’s a concern echoed by three members of the police force who agreed to speak on camera, with identities disguised. They say they turned to NBC Bay Area after administrators ignored the concerns raised in the survey.
“The public who might expect us to be in their neighborhoods, protecting their homes, will find that most officers won’t do those activities,” said one of the three officers who spoke to NBC Bay Area.
“You have officers more concerned with writing tickets and keeping stats up than apprehending suspects, for instance – catching residential burglars, patrolling neighborhoods,” another officer told NBC Bay Area.
Under the Vehicle Code, quotas are illegal in California. In addition, members of the Palo Alto police force believe that enforcing ticket quotas comes at a cost to public safety.
“Residential burglaries are a huge problem in Palo Alto; they occur on small little streets. Officers don’t generally patrol those areas anymore, because they are not going to generate a stat,” a third officer corroborated on camera.
“Some officers have been threatened with punishment if their statistics are low,” one officer told NBC Bay Area.
Sources revealed that the added pressure to produce more citations or face consequences led some officers to “double dip.” Officers were issuing both warnings and tickets for the same traffic stop. It’s documented in a department memo. It was an attempt by some officers to inflate their stats and escape punishment by showing management they were making twice as many stops, "padding their activity."
Officers also say they’re being urged to artificially enhance their response time statistics.
“To say we have a shorter response time than we actually do, our department administration has encouraged officers to say they’re on scene when they’re not. We’re actually a minute or two away, or down the street. We’re inflating those numbers,” an officer said.
Sources say the increased pressure to manipulate statistics is all a part of a plan by department heads to prevent staffing and budget cuts from the city.
“They expect an audit. The city is going to audit our time, and if we don’t have enough things on paper they’re going to cut our staffing,” an officer said.
“The police administration has derailed the mission of this department from protecting and serving the public to protecting their own and serving themselves,” another officer assessed of his department’s leadership.
According to the 2013 internal survey, 46 percent of the department said they have “no confidence” in the current administration.
For weeks, NBC Bay Area requested an interview to speak with Palo Alto Police Chief Dennis Burns and discuss his officers’ concerns that they believe have been ignored for years.
Chief Burns repeatedly declined, so NBC Bay Area cameras caught up with him and asked whether he has made any changes to address officers' concerns.
“Sure,” Chief Burns responded, but declined to go into detail.
NBC Bay Area followed up and asked whether his agency has an unofficial quota in place.
“That’s not the case,” Chief Burns responded before returning to his office and refusing to answer any further questions.
Zach Perron, a spokesperson for the department, told NBC Bay Area in a statement, “No department members have informed our administration of any outstanding concerns that impact the safety of our personnel or the public.”
Former public defender and Palo Alto community activist Aram James told NBC Bay Area that he has worked with Chief Burns to resolve community issues in the past. James believes the police and the public deserve answers.
“Whether he’s my friend or not, a friend tells a friend the truth. Dennis, why aren’t you responding? What do you have to hide?” James told NBC Bay Area.
Silence From The City
NBC Bay Area reached out to Palo Alto Mayor Nancy Shepherd to get her response to the officers’ concerns.
Both Mayor Shepherd and City Manager Jim Keene declined to comment. NBC Bay Area has an open-ended request to speak with the Police Chief, Mayor, and City Manager of Palo Alto.