Debate over racial profiling by Palo Alto police continued at the Human Relations Commission meeting Thursday, where both sides used the same numbers to tell different stories.
Police Chief Lynne Johnson, who stirred controversy Oct. 30 when she said her officers were instructed to initiate "consensual contact" with black men after a spike in strong-arm robberies, presented the department's quarterly demographic statistics to the commission Thursday night, covering July 1 to Sept. 30.
But she urged commission members to use caution when interpreting the numbers.
Some critics have pointed out that black persons are only 2 percent of the city's population but are involved in nearly 15 percent of traffic stops.
Johnson said that comparison ignores the fact that in the most recent quarter only 26 percent of the people whom officers contacted were Palo Alto residents.
"The use of census data based upon resident population does not have any relation with the people officers stop and have contact with on a daily basis," Johnson said.
She also said that in some cases, in particularly speeding violations, officers don't know the race of the person they're about to stop.
But John Abraham, a longtime analyst of police statistics and department critic, once again accused the police of targeting too many blacks and Hispanics during traffic stops and searches. He pointed to statistics showing that about 24 percent of the people searched after a stop in three of the last four quarters were black.
"This means, if you're searched, you're likely not a white person, you're a minority person," he told the commission. "That should give you a little pause."
Commissioners expressed concern about the statistics, even as they acknowledged their ambiguity.
"If you took Palo Alto and put it in the center and then you took all the surrounding communities and brought every black man, woman and child and put them into Palo Alto, they would still not be represented when you normalize the data," Commissioner Donald Mendoza said.
"They would still be over-arrested and over-stopped. When you look at it like that, it should be concerning to anybody."
He acknowledged, however, that even this sort of analysis does not prove racial profiling.
Other commissioners urged the department to provide more narrative and descriptions to put the numbers into context.
"I'm worried a little about so much emphasis on data," Commissioner Ray Bacchetti said. "Numbers and statistics are never precise; they take a lot of interpretation. What's missing in a lot of reports are words, narratives, the kind of things that are part of dialogue."
The meeting also featured calls from residents for Johnson to quit, as well as comments defending her. But unlike at the last two City Council meetings, where dozens of people spoke on the topic, only a handful spoke for each side Thursday.
After the meeting, Johnson said she was confident her officers were not consciously targeting people based on race. But she also noted that some officers might be influenced by "unconscious biases," which might stem from negative depictions of black persons and officers by the entertainment industry.
"I believe we all are a total of our experiences," she said. "Sometimes, unconscious biases come out."
Johnson also told the board about her plans to create a new community advisory committee to help facilitate dialogue between her department and area residents. The initiative would be part of a broader action plan to repair the damage caused by the Oct. 30 comments, for which she has repeatedly apologized.
She said she will present her full action plan to the council within the next few weeks.
(Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at [email protected])