Is telling police to check out persons of color unconstitutional bias or a reasonable police response to witness' reports of crimes?
A follow-up meeting Thursday evening between Palo Alto police brass and about 40 residents concerned about crime and safety shifted abruptly into a concern about race or ethnic background.
That explosively emotional topic quickly spiraled out of control to a national-media level.
Here, without the overlay of emotional response to what was reported, is more or less what happened:
In response to a question by frequent police critic Aram James, Chief Lynne Johnson said she has instructed officers that they should question persons of color who match descriptions of men who have been seen stealing from people's homes and cars or who have engaged in a series of terrifying strong-arm robberies mostly targeting women walking alone.
That does not mean all persons of color, though. And Johnson never used the term, "racial profiling," that showed up in national headlines.
Things got worse when she later said in a post-meeting television interview that because one robber near the California Avenue train station was described as an African Amercian man wearing a "do-rag" head bandanna that she would expect her officers to stop and identify any African American man seen wearing a do-rag. One can almost hear do-rags being doffed by everyone.
Mayor Larry Klein responded strongly Friday afternoon, calling that statement on its face "unacceptable, unconstitutional and un-American."
Most but not all burglars and robbers spotted by witnesses were described as black (or "dark-skinned") or Hispanic -- some were white. But police aren't stopping white drivers or people walking around town, unless they're driving a big white van with blue stripes on the side, the truck seen in a home burglary.
So is it, as James suggested, an unconstitutional infringement on the rights of some persons, or is it a reasonable response to witness descriptions of burglars and robbers? Is it, as a national headline on MSNBC concludes, "racial profiling" or is it a proper response to citizen anger and very real fear of crime and violence? Or is it some of both?
Johnson said officers have been instructed to make "consensual contacts" with persons who may match descriptions of burglars or muggers, and to do so with respect. She acknowledged the potential for abuse and misperceptions of the intent.
A series of violent assaults and purse snatchings, and a baseball-bat attack that shattered the shoulder of a man in the downtown Palo Alto Caltrain pedestrian tunnel, have badly frightened many residents. One elderly woman who was knocked to the ground -- a potentially fatal attack -- is now terrified to walk anywhere alone, a close friend said at the meeting. An imprisonment by fear.
But an innocent person of any color who is stopped due to their appearance or skin color doesn't soon forget it, especially if they are treated in a high-handed or abusive manner.
And there is a long history.
Add to the emotional mix literally years of tension in Palo Alto relating to being stopped for "driving while black" and a severe beating of the late Albert Hopkins, then-supervisor of Gunn High School's academic center, by two Palo Alto officers in July 2003.
It was a hunch by a rookie officer who noticed a young black man sitting in an older sedan in south Palo Alto who "seemed out of place" that later led to the arrest of the suspect in a brutal assault on a girl on her way home from Gunn High School. Was that racism or racial profiling or a reasonable precaution?
Inflammatory, partial news coverage of the Thursday meeting and Johnson's offhand comments have made matters explosively worse.
But the fact is that even James had some nice words about the department near the end of the meeting.
"I appreciate a lot of officers in the department, but there are some bad apples who abuse the Constitution," James commented.
And Johnson agreed with James about his expressed concern about potential abuse when officers stop and question persons based even partially on color.
The entire dialogue on race or ethnicity lasted just a few minutes out of about an hour and a half. Johnson Friday was preparing a "clarification" statement in response to the national news coverage.
At the end of the meeting, residents gave police brass at the meeting a round of applause for their efforts.
In my own experience, having covered the Palo Alto Police Department during the late 1960s and 1970s, I can state flatly that there was overt racism (a term I hesitate to use because it is nonproductive in most cases) on the part of some officers. Officers used similar excuses for following persons of color through downtown Palo Alto, especially groups of teenagers walking through town. Often, an officer would cruise slowly along behind them in a police car.
And, yes, there were reports of groups of minority teens entering local stores and one distracting the clerk while others stuffed candy bars or small items in their pockets.
I was friends with a former police officer in a town north of Palo Alto. He was a neighbor who was assigned a police dog that only understood German. We awoke on some weekends to him running his German (literally) shepherd through his paces on his front lawn: "Achtung! Sitzen."
My friend quit the other department because he couldn't stomach a fellow canine officer keeping his dog on snarling attack alert by repeating, "Get the n------! Get the n------!" repeatedly as they patrolled neighborhoods.
When there are bad apples they can be really rotten.
At the erstwhile Palo Alto Times, we hired an outstanding young African-American man, Wil Webster, as a "news clerk" -- a term we coined to replace the traditional but then clearly inappropriate "copy boy" in the newsroom. Wil was a tall track star from East Palo Alto and one of his jobs was to rush photos to an engraving shop several blocks from the Times' building on Lytton Avenue, and bring back the engravings, on deadline.
He was the fastest photo delivery and pickup clerk we ever had because he loped through town with long track-star strides.
But just about every week he'd be stopped by one Palo Alto officer or another, who assumed that a young black man running full tilt down Emerson Street just had to be up to no good. Wil took it in stride, so to speak.
Times' Editor Al Bodi finally wrote a letter on Times' stationery informing officers that Wil was on official duty and should not be delayed. (Sadly, Wil was drafted and drowned a few years later while swimming in a river in Vietnam, where he spent his off-duty time working to improve lives of local villagers. Several of us in the newsroom choked up, some cried, when we got word of his death.)
If there is a prime evil in the world, it is judging people by the color of their skin or ethnicity, in my view. But distrust of those who differ from "us" runs deep, some believe back to the origins of man where strangers were objects of immediate distrust -- and being cast out by a tribe to wander alone was equivalent to a sentence of death or enslavement.
Can we as a species outgrow that primordial fear-based distrust, even hate?
We are about to put that measure to a great national test next Tuesday, election day.
Will we pass?