Palo Alto group seeks to bridge gap between police, community
New Community Advisory Group offers the Police Department 'candid' advice behind closed doors
Palo Alto's newest citizen commission includes an East Palo Alto pastor, a Palo Alto High School student, a retired bank executive, a former Palo Alto mayor and a local resident who had publicly accused Palo Alto police officers of racially profiling her.
Its members' ages range from 16 to 84 and their backgrounds and occupations are similarly varied. Since late October, members have been meeting once a month with a small group of Palo Alto police officers to swap police stories and bone up on police laws and procedures. The goal, according to the group's vision statement, is to "address the concerns of the community and enhance the relationship between the police and citizens in order to assure fair and impartial policing."
But in recent weeks, several members of the City Council publicly questioned the less-than-transparent nature of the new Community Advisory Group, which the city created last year to improve communications between the police department and the community. At last week's joint meeting of the City Council and the Human Relations Commission, Councilman Yiaway Yeh asked for a list of "pros and cons" for keeping the meetings closed to the public. Councilwoman Gail Price said she hopes the group revisits the issue.
"I see it as a process decision, hopefully, that gets revisited because we feel very strongly about giving people opportunities to participate," Price said.
"I understand the issue of creating an environment where people feel safe to make comments," she added. "As this goes on, there are a lot of people with good ideas who may help you with your work."
Police watchdog Aram James characterized the private meetings as an affront to democracy and argued that the community has a right to know what goes on at the meetings. James, who regularly criticizes the police department at meetings of the City Council and the Human Relations Commission, decried the fact that he can't participate in the Community Advisory Group meetings as well.
"It's a basic concept of democracy," James said. "I might see what you observe as benign as quite the opposite.
"I resent not being able to give my input on the subject."
Daryl Savage, chair of the Human Relations Commission, called the private nature of the group's meetings a "controversial issue" but defended the current policy. She said the meetings entail "lively exchanges of candid ideas" and said group members would be less forthright if they knew their comments would be scrutinized by the public or repeated by the media.
Police Chief Dennis Burns, who spearheaded the group's creation, said the group has yet to hold a full discussion on whether to make the meetings public. Burns said he understands the critics' concerns, but he also stressed the importance of allowing group members to talk freely.
"I have witnessed the value in this group of having some really candid conversations and having an exchange that's really honest and not staged in a way that makes people feel constrained.
"I'm not saying we won't make it open, but we have to first check with the people in the group and see what their positions are."
Former Palo Alto Mayor Jim Burch, who sits on the Community Advisory Group, said he very much opposes the idea of opening up the meetings. Burch said opening the meetings up would "reduce the effectiveness of the group drastically." Burch said the group features a great variety of points of view. But he emphasized the fact that despite their differences, the group members listen to one another respectfully and focus on making things better.
Opening the meetings up to the greater public would attract critics who are only interested in berating city officials, rather than in working for improvement, Burch told the Weekly.
"If it's anything like the council meetings, we'll have people coming who aren't willing to work with the police so much as argue about the past," Burch said. "Some of them don't seem to be interested in reconciliation and moving forward."
Roger Smith, who is also a member of the group, also said the meeting should remain closed. Smith, a former CEO of the Silicon Valley Bank, said he's been impressed with the "free flow of information" coming from group members and said making the meetings public would "stifle the conversation."
"The conversation is very different when it's recorded," Smith said.
The group also includes the Rev. Paul Bains from East Palo Alto's St. Samuel Church and Palo Alto High student Lucas Brooks. Tommy Fehrenbach, who formerly chaired the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, as is local resident Karen Purvis, who in 2008 publicly complained about being a victim of racial profiling, is also a member.
The group's other members are Harold Boyd, Ann Hardy, Carolyn Brown Digovich, Charles King, Cynthia Campbell, Arash Dabestani, Karen McAdams, Anne Ream and Nancy Tadlock. Agent Scott Savage and officers DuJuan Green and Mariana Villaescusa from the Palo Alto Police Department also participate in the group meetings, Burns said.
Bains said he isn't opposed to making the group meetings public, but cautioned against doing that too soon. The group needs more time to gain traction, Bains said, before the public is invited to the meetings.
"You need to get a process and a system in place that's working," Bains told the Weekly. "It takes much more time to resolve an issue when you have 100 voices participating than when you have 10 voices."
Harold Boyd, a retired Stanford University administrator who had helped raise money for the university's Martin Luther King Research and Education Institute, also said he'd be open to making the meetings public. His comments at the meeting would remain the same whether or not the public were watching, Boyd said.
"I think the more transparency we have in public affairs the better the citizenry will understand the purpose for the group and what we're engaged in doing," Boyd told the Weekly.
The advisory group sprung into existence last year as part of an "action plan" the Police Department launched to counter widespread accusations of racial profiling. Critics were particularly enraged by comments made by former Police Chief Lynne Johnson made at an Oct. 30, 2008, community meeting. Johnson suggested that officers were instructed to stop and question African-Americans on city streets as part of the department's response to a string of street robberies.
In the following weeks, Johnson offered numerous apologies and maintained that the department does not practice racial profiling. Nevertheless, she resigned at the end of 2008 under a storm of criticism.
Burns said one of the purposes of the new group is to "engage the community and get their perception on what we can improve." He also said he hopes the group will help the department provide information to the greater community about its various programs and procedures.
"We want to reach out to the different groups who may not have a real voice and a real connection with the police department," Burns said. "The purpose is for them to educate us and, hopefully, for us to educate them."
The group has held four meetings so far. The first meeting focused on introductions, Burns said. The second one was an "overview" meeting in which the group discussed its mission and vision. The third meeting included a detailed discussion of the department's policies and procedures. The fourth one featured a question-and-answer session that touched on mental health issues, student well-being, the department's Explorer program and ways for the police department to get involved and have a "positive presence" in the community.
Burns said the group was also asked to read and to be prepared to discuss the latest report from Independent Police Auditor Michael Gennaco. Group members had also toured the Police Department facility and swapped stories about their police experiences. Participants haven't always seen eye to eye, Burns said, but there haven't been any shouting matches, Burns said. Every group member has shown a willingness to listen to divergent points of view, he said.
"Some of the members are people who have questioned the police in the past and have legitimate concerns," Burns said.
Ray Bacchetti, the vice chairman of the Human Relations Commission who helped pick the group members, agreed that public meetings would curtail the level of discourse. The group is not intended to function as a "police review board," Bacchetti said, but rather as a board that gives honest advice and helps to improve communication between the department and the community.
Bacchetti also noted that the city already gives police critics a variety of channels for expressing their views.
"People who have concerns about the police have all sorts of actions they can take," Bacchetti said. "They can contact the police auditor or go to the City Council or the Human Relations Commission — which they do.
"Just to provide another venue would completely undermine the purpose and the function that was on the police chief's mind when he started the group."
Editor's note: Daryl Savage writes the ShopTalk column for the Weekly.
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at email@example.com.