Palo Alto could stop collecting traffic-stop data
Demographic reports may be scrapped to trim expenses, narrow budget gap
The Palo Alto Police Department's tally of traffic stops, broken down by racial categories, has always raised more questions than it answered.
The data charts and color-coded bar graphs show the number of African-American, Hispanic, white, Asian and "other" drivers whom the police have pulled over in the preceding three months, along with reasons for the stop, the probable cause and the drivers' cities of residence. These reports generally fall under the radar, but the data had a brief period of prominence in the fall and winter of 2008, when former Police Chief Lynne Johnson made comments that many interpreted as an endorsement of racial profiling — comments that ultimately led to her resignation.
The department began collecting demographic traffic-stop data in 2000 and filed its first report in 2001. But now, with the city facing a projected $7.3 million budget gap in fiscal year 2011, the practice appears to be on its way out. On May 17, the City Council Finance Committee recommended eliminating the crime analyst position charged with producing the detailed reports, a move that would save the city $116,000. The full council is scheduled to vote on the committee's recommendations and adopt the budget later this month.
The crime analyst position is one of several the department could eliminate this year, along with two detectives responsible for investigating financial crimes, a traffic-enforcement officer and a community-outreach specialist. Police Chief Dennis Burns said that while the crime analyst position is important, his priority is to make sure the department has enough officers to fulfill its more urgent priorities of ensuring public safety and responding to emergencies.
"It's great to have it, but we have to contribute to the bottom line and come up with cuts," Burns said. "Hopefully, we'll be doing some things that will make up for it."
Burns said the department has adopted new technologies and measures in the past decade that help ensure police accountability. Police cruisers are now equipped with cameras; the department is now regularly reviewed by an independent police auditor; and every officer's performance is now analyzed in what Burns called an "early intervention system" — a database of statistics that helps department administrators identify unusual patterns in officers' behavior.
Palo Alto officers also participate in "Meet the Chief" meetings and receive regular training on fair and impartial policing. A month ago, they attended a lecture on racial profiling from Lorie Fridell, a University of South Florida criminology professor and one of the nation's leading experts on the subject. Fridell, who has advised Burns on impartial policing, also held a seminar on racial profiling in Palo Alto last year. At that time, she told the Weekly that the demographic data, while a useful tool to promote transparency, is difficult to interpret and liable to misinterpretation.
One might, for example, infer from looking at the numbers that African-American drivers are pulled over disproportionately (11 percent of the drivers pulled over between January 1 and March 31 of this year were African-American), given that African-American residents only make up 2 percent of the Palo Alto's population, according to the U.S. Census.
That argument, police are quick to say, ignores the drivers who don't live in Palo Alto but who visit the city or regularly pass through it.
Despite the difficulty in analyzing the numbers, there are those who want the department to continue collecting them. John Abraham, a statistician at Stanford University, has urged the Finance Committee to continue funding the reports. Independent Police Auditor Michael Gennaco wrote in his February audit that the department should continue to collect the data, despite its "shortcomings, complexity" and expense.
"First, data collection conveys important messages both to the community and within the police department that the City is concerned with the specter of bias-based policing and is not shy about providing to its public such stop data," Gennaco wrote. "Moreover, even if data collection cannot at present prove or disprove bias-based policing, it can produce important information that an agency should have regarding the work of its officers."
But the issue hasn't resonated with the public at large. At the May 17 budget hearing, residents were more interested in making sure the council continues to fund traffic enforcers and school crossing guards. Abraham was the only speaker to mention the demographic reports.
Ray Bacchetti, a member of the Human Relations Commission and a volunteer at the Police Department, told the Weekly he has yet to notice "anything of value" to come out of the demographic reports. The data could become useful for later studies and analyses, he said, but given the city's budget gap, it's only natural that the city revisit the subject of data collection.
Instead of spending money collecting and analyzing these obscure reports, the department should continue to invest in training programs that promote fair and unbiased policing, Bacchetti said.
"When you have a report that's produced routinely, that is fairly labor intensive and no good use is made of it, it doesn't seem that it should remain on autopilot," Bacchetti told the Weekly.
Burns said he doesn't expect the end of demographic-data collection to significantly impede his ongoing effort to promote transparency and to strengthen the department's relationship with minority communities. Over the past year, he has been regularly meeting with an advisory group that includes members of faith-based and minority communities to discuss and debate the department's policies.
The goal, Burns said, is to both educate the community about the department's actions and to hear the public's perspective — in short, to promote transparency through good old-fashioned conversation.
Harold Boyd, a member of the Police Advisory Committee who as a North Carolina native lived through segregation, said he believes it's important for the Police Department to collect hard data and continue its efforts ensure racial profiling doesn't exist in Palo Alto.
Boyd did not take a stance on the issue of demographic traffic-stop reports, which he said the advisory committee hasn't focused on. But he said that if the department stops collecting this data, it should show what else it is doing to ensure fair policing.
"I believe hard data is important, but it's by no means the only method of helping to achieve this goal," Boyd said. "What I'd like to know is, if you take away one thing, what are you replacing it with?"
BALANCE THE BUDGET ONLINE
Try your hand at closing Palo Alto's projected $7.3 million budget gap in fiscal year 2011. Palo Alto Online presents "Hard Choices," an interactive budget tool. Of the dozens of programs and services Palo Alto City Manager James Keene has identified for elimination or reduction, which would you choose?
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at email@example.com.