More than 50 persons — including about 40 African-American Stanford University students — attended the Palo Alto City Council meeting Monday night in a show of anger and frustration at Police Chief Lynne Johnson's comments last week about officers being told to stop and identify black men.
Some speakers called on Johnson to resign despite an apology she repeated at the meeting, while others urged a stronger community dialogue and one defended her efforts to combat racism within the department. Some did both, as it became increasingly clear her job as chief may depend on her damage-repair efforts.
The Rev. Anthony Darrington, pastor of the Jerusalem Baptist Church in Palo Alto, said Johnson "doesn't have a racist bone in her body." He then called for her resignation.
"I'm extremely concerned," the Rev. Darrington said. "And the major concern I have is the fact that there is, whether we want to admit it or not, tension brewing with this situation. It should be defused immediately."
Johnson has been mired in controversy ever since she acknowledged at last Thursday's community meeting that her officers are instructed to make "consensual contact" with black men in response to a recent string of street robberies, some of them violent.
Problems created by Johnson's statements could not be solved with a simple "sorry," the Rev. Darrington said. Johnson had met with members his church earlier Monday.
Other speakers agreed with the Rev. Darrington.
"A simple sorry or apology is not good enough," said Michael Rollerson, noting that even his 7-year-old daughter says she no longer likes the police. "Personally, I think the chief of police should resign."
The calls for her resignation came minutes after Johnson apologized for statements she made last week during and after a community meeting on recent crimes Thursday night.
"I sincerely apologize for the firestorm I have caused," she said at one point, pledging to do her best to repair the damage.
At the Thursday-night meeting she said in response to a question that because in most recent robberies the perpetrators were described as African-American males that police officers were told to make polite "consensual contact" to identify men who fit that description. During the meeting Johnson qualified her comments by stating that the men should meet other descriptions of the robbers as well, but in television interviews after the meeting she failed to include any qualifiers.
In a follow-up letter to the community, Johnson said she should have included that men contacted by officers should match other descriptions besides race and be in the proximity of where crimes had occurred several robberies occurred near Caltrain stations in Palo Alto.
Johnson issued her first round of apologies Friday following a lengthy meeting with City Manager James Keene and after a media firestorm and denouncements from Mayor Larry Klein and other city leaders.
On Monday night, she reiterated how sorry she is and again retracted her statements from last week.
"The words that came out of my mouth were definitely not the message I was trying to convey," Johnson said. "People who know me know that I never have and never will condone racial profiling.
"For my entire career, I have fought to make sure every person is treated with dignity and respect.
"I will do everything humanly possible to repair the damage I have caused," she said.
Johnson said she will spend the next two weeks meeting with people and putting together a longer-term "action plan" to restore the community's confidence. The plan will include reaching out to the city's ministers and congregations and holding monthly meetings with community members, she said.
Keene said he has asked for the police department's policy to be audited. And the council will have a chance next week to pass a resolution firmly stating its opposition to "racial profiling," the term applied when police stop persons based even partially on their race or ethnic backgrounds.
Monday's regular council meeting was preceded by a closed personnel "performance evaluation" session with Keene, who has been on the job only a matter of weeks. But the content of the session -- which had been scheduled earlier to assess Keene's initial performance and plans -- is confidential.
The department in recent years has been monitoring virtually all traffic stops and other contacts in response to earlier allegations of race-related or "driving while black" bases for the contacts. And the city hired an independent "police auditor" to monitor department practices.
But Keene gave no indication that he plans to fire Johnson at present. He said he would rather see her repair the damage she has caused.
"There were clearly some very inappropriate remarks," Keene said. "If they were true, they would call into question the department's standards and procedures."
Johnson also had a few defenders at Monday's meeting.
Bill Green, a Palo Alto attorney who moved to Palo Alto 37 years ago, said racism is much less prevalent in the police department today than it was a few decades ago. Johnson simply misspoke at last week's meeting, he said.
"I do not believe Chief Johnson is a racist," Green said. "I know things are better for African-Americans under her watch." Green recited a litany of instances in which his children had had unpleasant experiences with officers, including when driving the family car being stopped and asked where they stole the car.
Though many of the Stanford students in attendance voiced their concerns, they fell short of asking for Johnson's resignation.
Matthew Miller, a freshman at Stanford, thanked Johnson for her apology but said the dialogue between the police and community must continue.
Another freshman, Michael Tubbs, called for sensitivity training within the department and an audit of police policies.
"I'm confident we'll not stand for racial profiling," Tubbs said. "We're excited about working with the Palo Alto community to make sure racial profiling doesn't exist in any way, shape or form in our community."
After the meeting, Johnson said she wasn't surprised to hear the community's concerns.
She also said she has no plans to resign, though she would consider it if she felt she was doing damage to the department.
"I've never been one to shy away from controversy," Johnson said.
(Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at [email protected])