A group of Palo Alto residents is trying to convince the city to retain the Police Department's practice of collecting demographic data at traffic stops.
Lynn Krug, a Midtown resident and an inspector in the city's Utilities Department, said she is collecting endorsements from human rights and labor groups for a petition to keep the data-collection in place.
So far, more than 20 organizations and individuals have signed the petition, including members of the San Mateo Labor Council, the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center and Free at Last.
The City Council agreed to stop collecting data last month as part of its effort to trim the Police Department budget and close the city's General Fund deficit.
The Police Department began collecting demographic data for all police traffic stops about 10 years ago. It has also been publishing reports on traffic-stop data online and periodically presenting them to the City Council.
The reports took on more prominence in November 2008, shortly after former Police Chief Lynne Johnson made comments that many interpreted as an endorsement of racial profiling.
The comments prompted the department to launch a series of initiatives to promote fair and unbiased policing, including regular community meetings with Police Chief Dennis Burns, a new citizen task force to advise Burns and seminars on unbiased policing for police officers.
At the June 6 meeting of the Human Relations Commission, Burns said recent changes in the department should more than make up for losing demographic-date collection. He noted the city now has an independent police auditor and that all police cars now have audio and video cameras that record every traffic stop -- measures that were not in place a decade ago.
"We won't be collecting data, but we'll be shifting our focus elsewhere," Burns said. "Through training, policy development and working with the auditor, we believe we'll be able to achieve the goal of fair and impartial policing."
The commission voted at that meeting to recommend that the department continue collecting the demographic data, but only if it could do so without being forced to cut other police positions. Despite the recommendation, the council ultimately approved a budget that eliminates the crime analyst position responsible for compiling the reports.
City and police officials have maintained in the past that the numbers in the reports are ambiguous and liable to misinterpretation. But John Abraham, a local resident with a doctorate in statistics from Stanford University, has consistently pointed to the reports as evidence that officers pull over black and Hispanic residents much more frequently than white residents.
Independent Police Auditor Michael Gennaco recommended in a February report that the city continue to collect the traffic-stop data, even after he acknowledged the data's shortcomings.
"More often than not, jurisdictions that have attempted to analyze stop data in the past, have been left unsatisfied and unable to draw any firm or widely accepted conclusions," Gennaco wrote.
"Even more problematic, in some jurisdictions, the same data has been assessed by competing analysts to reach opposite conclusions about whether bias-based policing has occurred."
But he also said data collection carries several important benefits. It "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 data stop."
The data can also provide the police agency with important information about the work of its officers, even if it can't at this time prove or disprove allegations of bias, Gennaco wrote.
Krug, who last year served as chair of Service Employees International Union, Local 521, had also sent an e-mail to the council this week urging members to restore collection of demographic data. She indicated that the SEIU employee whose position was cut will likely speak at Monday night's council meeting.
The council will begin its meeting at 5:30 p.m. with a closed session to discuss labor negotiations. The regular meeting will follow in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 250 Hamilton Ave.