HRC: Police 'profiling' data still needed

But only one annual report is necessary, Human Relations Commission recommends to City Council

Palo Alto police officers should continue collecting racial and gender data about individuals officers stop, but with only one report a year, not two, the Human Relations Commission decided Wednesday night.

The commission's 4-1 recommendation, with Chairman Adam Atito voting no and Shauna Wilson Mora absent, will now go to the City Council.

The change, which the commission suggested for a one-year trial, should save the department about 200 hours a year, Director of Technical Services Sheryl Contois said.

To combat racial profiling, officers document each traffic or other stop they make by gender, race, reason for the encounter and its location and outcome.

Last year, in an effort to save the department work, Commissioner Daryl Savage suggested scaling back the data collection.

After several months of refinement, Contois, Savage and others came up with the compromise approved by the commission Wednesday.

Atito said he remains concerned that the data is not used and has not resulted in any department reforms.

"I'm willing to scrap the whole data collection if we have something tangible," Atito said. "I have not seen that."

The issue is a tricky one that challenges the department, Contois and Chief Lynne Johnson said.

A key problem is that there is no way of knowing the overall demographics of drives through Palo Alto, they said. In addition, few other departments gather such data, so it is no clear way to determine whether officers are stopping too many minorities.

But Commissioner Donald Mendoza and several members of the public said they still have concerns the department is targeting minorities.

"I don't think the process right now is working very well," Mendoza said. "I can look at the data and I can interpret it exactly opposite."

"There's every indication that African Americans are overstopped," police watcher John Abraham told the commission.

But according to all previous analyses, including one by Stanford graduate students, the department's behavior is well within bounds, Johnson said.

She admitted the issue frustrates her.

The department has tried to reach out to the community by hosting informal coffees, creating a hotline and by hiring a police auditor, but often there has been little interest, Johnson said.

Only about six members of the public have ever mentioned the demographic reports to her, Johnson said.

She has also disciplined and fired officers for misconduct not related to racial profiling, Johnson said. In addition, officers receive regular diversity training and each patrol car is outfitted with a video camera that switches on when lights are activated.

But unless she learns of a specific case of racial profiling there is little she can do, Johnson said.

Contois said she regularly searches for better uses of the data.

"It's just really a constant challenge," Contois said.

The department also has a low ratio of supervisors to officers to emphasize the importance of accountability, Assistant Police Chief Dennis Burns told the commission.

Contois screened three videos that captured an officer pulling over a car to show that officers, day or night, usually cannot tell the race or sex of the driver they are pulling over.

Yet the department could have specially selected those videos, several members of the public noted.

And who knows what the officer did before the video began recording, Mendoza said.

The department should review a random sample of videos to examine whether officers are profiling, Abraham suggested.

If the council adopts the recommendation, the department would publish the raw data on its Web site four times a year, Contois said. It would provide one full written report to the council and community per year and give the commission a mid-year update, she said.

(Staff Writer Becky Trout can be e-mailed at


 +   Like this comment
Posted by GMC
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 24, 2008 at 10:29 am

At night, I seriously doubt a police officer could tell what race the driver is. This policy has almost no usefulness. If a police officer really were to make a habit of stopping people purely to harass them, why wouldn't he or she just fudge the statistics? In addition, if the objective truth is that a higher percentage of crimes are committed by specific groups, then the number of police stops is going to reflect that. Its just an unfortunate truth in our society. I'd like Palo Alto to continue to be a really safe place where people are outraged when even one robbery takes place. Forcing police officers to keep this tally is a potential step towards handcuffing law enforcement efforts to prevent crimes.
As is frequently mentioned on here - we do not want Palo Alto to turn into Berkeley.

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Jim
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 24, 2008 at 1:57 pm

The police profiling that is real in Palo Alto is the PC police on the HRC. Their view, reflexively, is that white PA cops are out looking for non-white stops, based on nothing. That is a real laugher.

Can this thing, and save the money. We need our bicycle cops back on University to run the bums out of there. We used to have that service.

The main reform we need to eliminate the HRC. It is a complete farce.

 +   Like this comment
Posted by NO-MORE-HRC
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 25, 2008 at 10:12 am

> The main reform we need to eliminate the HRC.
> It is a complete farce


The police have no business having to deal with the HRC.

There was a claim of "profiling" that has now been dealt with. There does not seem to be any data that substantiates the claim.

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 25, 2008 at 12:02 pm

I agree with Jim. We need police on foot or bike to patrol the downtown area. There are too many transient vagrants wandering the streets and acting in an obnoxious and sometimes dangerous manner. I'm sorry to say that I don't think the Palo Alto Police even notice the vagrants. You really get the impression that they don't want them in their cars and they don't want to interact with them. It's their job, but the vagrant advocates in this area are aggressive and the police are letting them take the lead. What ever happened to the "Restorative Policing" experiment? Face it - it just doesn't work. Time to start arresting and letting them spend some time in jail. Yes, it costs money, but it's worth it. Everything costs money. It's time to start enforcing the law.

 +   Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 27, 2008 at 4:54 pm

The heart of the question is what does the data say? So far the City has not asked for a good study of the PAPD data from an unbiased and qualified statistician. Preliminary descriptions of the police data, taken directly from the official reports, indicate there is overstopping of Palo Alto African-Americans. Also, given that a person is stopped, there is clearly a significant difference in the disposition or outcome of the stop depending on racial group. Such results are not opinion. That is what the PAPD data is saying.

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Posted by Jim
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 27, 2008 at 5:31 pm

" Preliminary descriptions of the police data, taken directly from the official reports, indicate there is overstopping of Palo Alto African-Americans. Also, given that a person is stopped, there is clearly a significant difference in the disposition or outcome of the stop depending on racial group. Such results are not opinion."

John, you seem very sure of yourself. On what baseline do you determine that there is " overstopping of Palo Alto African-Americans" ? Is it based on population, or actual presence? When you say, " clearly a significant difference in the disposition or outcome of the stop depending on racial group", is this based on actual law breaking (e.g. warrants or criminal behavior)?

As hard as you try, John, you will not be able to paint Palo Alto as a racist town. Class conscious and elitist, maybe, but not racist.

The truly bigoted group in town is the HRC. It has the nasty tendecny to ask questions that amount to "when did you stop beating your wife?".

It is time to eliminate the HRC.

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Can-The-HRC
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 28, 2008 at 7:39 am

> Preliminary descriptions of the police data, taken
> directly from the official reports, indicate there is
> overstopping of Palo Alto African-Americans.

When the police stop someone, it is for a reason: speeding, illegal turn, failure-to-yield, running a stop sign, etc. If a citation is issued, and not overturned later in court, why shouldn't the person who is stopped be stopped? In other words, what is "overstopping" when a valid infraction of the law can be demonstrated by the traffic officer? If every person guilty of a traffic infraction is cited, then where is the "over" here?

Are people claiming "overstopping" seem to be saying that some races should be given a pass for traffic violations?

If the police are not carrying the citation data along with the stopping data, then the data exercise is not as well designed as it could be.

The point about getting rid of the HRC still stands. This group is way over its head and little more than an embarrassment to decent Palo Altans.

 +   Like this comment
Posted by John from MIdtown
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 29, 2008 at 7:12 pm

I do not say it is necessary to suppose that the PAPD is always overtly racist in their interactions with black residents. But how they get so many indicators of overstopping from their quarterly production numbers needs some explanation. For example, just for Palo Alto African-American residents, there is a 3:1 AVERAGE stop rate compared to the 2% census proportion. Nothing like this occurs for the other racial groups. Sometimes the ratio reaches to 6:1. On both day and night stops, African-Americans are arrested most often, get less than half the citations whites do, and receive significantly more "No actions" and warnings than whites, Asians and others. It is as if police are more interested in checking them for arrests, and if that is not appropriate, they are let go. With regard to searches, the search rates for EITHER African Americans or Hispanics is so large that it typically exceeds the TOTAL search percentages for whites, Asians and "others" COMBINED. Why is this? Remember these are presumably just traffic stops. These are supposedly predominantly trffic stops, where the police claim color never affects their actions. Their own data (Demographic Series) just does not show this, not even mildly. Racial groups are in fact consistently treated differently for traffic stop outcomes. Why? So far police are not even willing to acknowledge what their own data shows. Forget the fancy analysis, this is just their quarterly outcome data. Will an in depth analysis be done by a competent statistician? Police so far are refusing to even entertain such a proposal.

 +   Like this comment
Posted by John from Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 5, 2008 at 8:10 pm

There is a much better question I have to ask: Is anybody out there even INTERESTED in whether the PAPD engages in racial profiling?

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