Because most — but not all — recent robberies and burglaries have been committed by persons witnesses describe as black or Hispanic, police may be questioning more persons based on race or ethnic background, Police Chief Lynne Johnson told residents Thursday night.
Johnson and other police officials met with about 40 residents Thursday at a City Hall meeting focused on a recent rash of robberies. Because 10 suspects in the 16 robberies that occurred in Palo Alto since June were described as black males, police have been talking to more people who match that description, Johnson said.
Johnson said officers have been told to initiate "consensual contact" with these individuals, while acknowledging that such an approach "can be abused" or misunderstood.
"We do not want to create an environment of fear for people of color in this community. Absolutely not," Johnson said. "But on the other hand, we have to do due diligence in apprehending suspects who are doing this."
The discussion on race started after police critic Aram James told officers that it is "constitutionally impermissible" to target persons without probable cause. He asked officials what they're doing to reconcile public safety with the need to protect people's basic rights. He said he is worried about a "few bad apples" within the department who "abuse the Constitution."
"We need to keep a dialogue going so that we don't create an extremely antagonistic and angry atmosphere where by trying to prevent crimes we actually create an atmosphere where there are more crimes," James said.
Both Johnson and Sgt. Scott Wong acknowledged that there have been abuses in the past. But both maintained that everything the department is doing is within the confines of the law. Wong said in his 26 years at the department he knows the people he's worked with "conduct lawful investigations and arrests" and said he would ensure that continues.
"The vast majority of robberies that occurred, the description is African-American males," Wong said. "I'm not going to say we're perfect and that mistakes aren't made on occasion, but I can assure you that as long as I'm here, we'll continue to do everything to the best of our abilities within the law."
Johnson said it is not unconstitutional to approach a person in a consensual manner, with respect. But if the person refuses to interact with the officer and acts suspicious, the officer could then detain him. She noted that if there are any abuses, she would like to hear about them.
"If an officer has consensual contact with a person of color, I expect the officer to interact with him on a very congenial basis," she said.
She also said if a resident were to report someone they believe to be suspicious in their neighborhood and the person turned out to live nearby officers would contact the initial caller to report that the person was a neighbor.