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Police: same numbers, different conclusions

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.

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"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.

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"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])

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Gennady Sheyner covers the City Hall beat in Palo Alto as well as regional politics, with a special focus on housing and transportation. Before joining the Palo Alto Weekly/PaloAltoOnline.com in 2008, he covered breaking news and local politics for the Waterbury Republican-American, a daily newspaper in Connecticut. Read more >>

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Police: same numbers, different conclusions

by / Palo Alto Online

Uploaded: Fri, Nov 14, 2008, 1:05 am

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])

Comments

not a math genius
Downtown North
on Nov 14, 2008 at 7:20 am
not a math genius, Downtown North
on Nov 14, 2008 at 7:20 am

so if 24% of the people searched were black, the other 76% consists of whites, hispanic, and asians? how is that biased?? sounds like an almost equal percentage among the four major races.


Your Mother
Professorville
on Nov 14, 2008 at 7:41 am
Your Mother, Professorville
on Nov 14, 2008 at 7:41 am

Well said math genius. I think you hit it right on the button.

According to PAPD's "Demographic Data Collection" statistics posted on their website, more white people are stopped and searched than are black people. More white people are arrested than black people. Based on this statistical data, how can you come to the conclusion that blacks are targeted more than whites? People just need to stop using race as an excuse.


Amazed
Downtown North
on Nov 14, 2008 at 7:50 am
Amazed, Downtown North
on Nov 14, 2008 at 7:50 am

Your math calculation seems correct to me too. I'm with you!

Moreover, of those searched (be they caucasian, hispanic, asian, black, or other), it was possible that those individuals had prior arrests/convictions which attached the ability for police to legally search these individuals since allowing police to search them was a condition of the individuals' probation or parole terms? Hmmmmm.

To the HRC: It's simple really. If these individuals don't commit crimes or even minor traffic violations in the first place, they won't be stopped and searched. But I'm no genius either.


tom
Midtown
on Nov 14, 2008 at 9:08 am
tom, Midtown
on Nov 14, 2008 at 9:08 am

Of the 24% of persons stopped in PA who are African-Americans, are 2% from PA? That's supposed to be the percentage of blacks who live in PA. If not, then the rest are not residents and can't be included in the judgement there is profiling of PA citizens.

If there is more wealth in PA than elsewhere, it's no wonder that robbers come here from other cities. And because they're not residents, they skew the data when stopped and questioned and possibly arrested.


Norbert
Midtown
on Nov 14, 2008 at 10:05 am
Norbert, Midtown
on Nov 14, 2008 at 10:05 am

> 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 criticism is almost meaningless. For typical traffic stops, people are cited and released--they are not searched. For the most part, they remain in their cars. So, in the cases where searches are involved, so some other situation is in effect. The data tracking these stops needs to be increased so that the reasons which cause an escalation from simply citing/warning/release to appear in the data.

If a car is stopped because a tail light is out, and the license check reveals an outstanding warrant, this will result in searching and arrest. This information needs to be clear for later analysis. From reading the typically shoddy reporting of the Weekly, none of these issues seem to be understood by anyone.

There are about 10,000 traffic stops made by PA PD a year. How many traffic tickets are issued? How many stops result in the detention of someone with an outstanding arrest warrant? How many of these stops resulted in warnings? And what is the breakdown by race for these stops and tickets?

With Table PCs being so inexpensive these days, it's a shame that the PA PD has not developed an application which allows traffic patrol officers to quickly collect the data needed to provide a clear picture of the situation after the fact using Tablet PCs with wireless interfaces.




YouShouldKnow
Old Palo Alto
on Nov 14, 2008 at 10:36 am
YouShouldKnow, Old Palo Alto
on Nov 14, 2008 at 10:36 am

Anyone who has ever taken even the most simplistic statistics course knows that most interpretations of stats can be construed as essentially garbage in, garbage out. Stats can be skewed to suit the agenda of the presenter. In this case we hardly have an objective point of view from Mr. Abraham. What we DO have is another person throwing their negativity into the mix making things more difficult for everyone involved. Well, except the dirtbags. Palo Alto as a whole, has a highly educated citizenry. They can do the math. The longer this witch hunt continues, the more Palo Altans will get a handle on the REAL agenda; and that ain't our safety folks!


fireman
another community
on Nov 14, 2008 at 10:47 am
fireman, another community
on Nov 14, 2008 at 10:47 am

This is news to who. Smoke and mirrors?

That is how they reach, Asettlement. Not wrong, not right

Seatlement.


GMC
Midtown
on Nov 14, 2008 at 12:28 pm
GMC, Midtown
on Nov 14, 2008 at 12:28 pm

What is the logical conclusion of Abraham's point? That the cops should somehow have a quota of ethnic groups they can stop in a given time period? Should they stop more whites to make up the difference? Does he have policy recommendations?
Would anyone acknowledge the tragic possibility that even if we had robot cops (or you might choose to call them "RoboCops," that were unable to see more than a humanoid heat signature (rather than skin color, ethnic features, etc) the current stats might be exactly the same? Maybe its true, or maybe its not, but would you stipulate that it is a real possibility?
I think the thrust of what many of us feel is that we simply want to make sure cops can stop people based on the circumstances as they see them, at that moment, regardless of what a person looks like.
How about another movie reference? Here's a great quote from "Stand and Deliver," when Jaime Escalante is arguing with 2 representatives (black and latino) from the educational testing service:
"There is two kinds of racism, Mr. Escalante. Judging a group because they are a minority, and *not* judging a group because they are a minority."


Norbert
Midtown
on Nov 14, 2008 at 2:16 pm
Norbert, Midtown
on Nov 14, 2008 at 2:16 pm

> "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."

What an idiotic comment! There are over 10,000+ traffic stops a year in Palo Alto. How in the world can the police start writing essays about "how it is I stopped motorist #6,537? Who is going to enter these essays into "the data base"? Who is going to read them? How does one expect possibly 100 officers to write reports in a consistent fashion so that anything meaningful can be gleaned from this text, relative to "racial profiling"? What is an incredibly bad idea!!

What is needed is a better model for data collection so that any situation can be realistically reconstructed from the data. There would be room in such a data record for narrative, should a patrol office feel the need. But with 10,000+ stops a year, decent statistics are the only way that anyone can make any sense out of this.

By the way, these sorts of problems go on in every city. So, a standardized model for data collection about traffic stops should be developed by the CHP, and adopted by cities statewide. The idea of having to read millions of narratives in order to determine whether or not there is a problem in a given town would be impossible.

Sadly, this guy's myopic point-of-view is being foisted on the hardworking, and taxpaying, people of Palo Alto. The whole idea of a "Human Rights Commission" is so outrageous--particularly when it raises the opinion of this guy's into a quasi-official status.

Sad .. so sad ..


musical
Palo Verde
on Nov 14, 2008 at 5:22 pm
musical, Palo Verde
on Nov 14, 2008 at 5:22 pm

A statistic reported in the SJ Merc said, of PAPD traffic stops, 23 percent of whites are released without being cited, and 36 percent of blacks are released without being cited.
What conclusions can we draw from that?


fireman
another community
on Nov 14, 2008 at 8:09 pm
fireman, another community
on Nov 14, 2008 at 8:09 pm

norbert, A report is written for each call, One person does not write
all reports.

I see you know nothing about public safety. I would have to write a report and enter 3 other reports and do a log book and all calls.

police,fire,doctors,nurses etc. Why you try to make some kind of big deal out of what we do for every call.
I think you back the "lets not write anything down group.

Please have a clue of what you talk about.

What do you think cops and fire take to court with them, an I pod?


Outside Observer
another community
on Nov 14, 2008 at 8:33 pm
Outside Observer, another community
on Nov 14, 2008 at 8:33 pm

Musical,

If we can believe those stats, it means 13% of the Blacks stopped for no violation were even less justified than the 23% of Whites stopped for no violation.


tom
Midtown
on Nov 16, 2008 at 8:23 am
tom, Midtown
on Nov 16, 2008 at 8:23 am

For information on the police and traffic stops, etc. go to page 59 of the City Auditor's "Service Efforts and Accomplishments" (SE and A) for 2006-07 issued in January 2008.

Police made more than 15,000 traffic stops and issued more than 57,000 parking citations. Lots more goodies on the Police Dept. as well as Utilities, Libraries, and other depts.


Bob
Charleston Meadows
on Nov 16, 2008 at 2:55 pm
Bob, Charleston Meadows
on Nov 16, 2008 at 2:55 pm

I think certain people are too damn sensitive about the race issue. It appears that the statistics point out that the Police evenly distribute the arrests, contacts, and citations to all races. Yet people still bitch and moan about it. We have a black president for god's sake. It seems like all this racial sensitivity just intensifies racial tension between everyone in society. Let's face it: everyone has their predjudices no matter how many marches, protests, riots, or prayer meetings we have. The funny thing is that the vocal minority who sparks all of these issues in Palo Alto are your typical WHITE suburbian middleaged males (you know who you are) who has not and probably will never experience any type of racial bias in their lives. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


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