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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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