Spurred by a public outcry for social justice and police reform, the Palo Alto City Council vowed on Monday night to improve accountability in the Police Department and to strengthen agency policies that prevent racism and discrimination.
After hearing from dozens of speakers, many calling for the city to reform or defund the Police Department, the council unanimously approved a resolution supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. It also directed staff to return next week with a plan for improving police policies, reviewing its hiring practices and launching a new initiative to promote diversity and inclusion throughout the city.
Yet the council's long discussion left begging one glaring question: What happens next? Even as the council signaled its support for revising department policies, it did not specify what changes it would like to see changed.
The council also refrained from commenting on some of the recent episodes in which officers were accused of using excessive force, including two that were captured on video and that involved violent arrests near Buena Vista Mobile Home Park.
Residents were far less bashful about citing those recent cases and to demand that officers who were involved in violent arrests be fired. Resident Xander Koo was one of many who urged the council on Monday to "disarm and defund the Palo Alto Police Department."
"We should instead work to remedy the legacy of redlining and housing discrimination that Palo Alto is built upon and invest in education and social programs for black and brown communities in our area," Koo said.
Unlike in Minneapolis, where the City Council signaled its desire to effectively dismantle and rebuild its Police Department, the Palo Alto council showed little appetite for widespread change. While council members condemned the May 25 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, calling it "appalling," Vice Mayor Tom DuBois and Councilman Eric Filseth suggested that this type of incident can't happen in Palo Alto.
"I think the men and women of our Police Department serve our community well," DuBois said. "We are not Minneapolis, or Ferguson or Detroit. While we have had a few issues, I think our police should not be viewed as the problem, but as part of the solution."
In supporting the resolution and approving a plan for reform, council members said they were inspired by the recent wave of protests that has swept the nation since the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. In Palo Alto, more than 2,000 people marched through the streets and rallied in front of City Hall on Saturday, with many carrying "Black Lives Matters" signs and chanting to demand justice.
Some of that energy spilled over into the Monday public hearing, where some residents criticized the city for implementing a curfew on June 2 in response to reports of potential looting at Stanford Shopping Center. While City Manager Ed Shikada initially said the curfew will stretch until June 11, he lifted the mandate on June 4 after a chorus of complaints from residents and civil rights advocates.
On June 8, in their first meeting since the curfew, council members offered different takes on the move. DuBois said he did not support the proposed length of the curfew, while Councilwoman Liz Kniss said Shikada made the right call in imposing it. She pointed to Santa Monica, which did not impose a curfew and which experienced some looting in the early days of the protests.
Kniss suggested that Palo Alto's curfew may have prevented a similar outcome.
"As a result, our city does not have any looting, it does not have any damage," Kniss said.
Some residents were put off by Kniss' praise of the curfew, which they said was a misuse of police powers. Cairo Mo was among them.
"There was no looting because people chose not to loot," Mo said. "It was not because of the police. It was not because of the curfew."
Some, like Mo and Sefa Santos-Powell, called for sweeping changes, including defunding the police and redirecting money toward community programs that address social inequalities. A few, including Xander Koo, called for Police Chief Robert Jonsen and Shikada to resign. Santos-Powell cited Palo Alto's history of "inflicting violence" on members of the black community and said the city needs to do more than just "pay lip service to supporting the Black Lives Matter movement."
"If you truly believe in Black Lives Matter, we should fund community development programs like affordable housing, equitable education, free health care and increased mental health and crisis support," Santos-Powell said.
But while about everyone, including the City Council, agreed that the council needs to go well beyond the resolution, none of the seven members supported defunding the police or pursuing the type of sweeping structural change that Santos-Powell and others had called for. They were far more inclined to support limited reforms that restrict use of force, including the policies in the "8 Can't Wait" campaign. These include a ban on chokeholds, a ban on shooting at moving vehicles and requirements that officers try to de-escalate conflicts before using force and that they issue warnings before shooting.
The Rev. Kaloma Smith, pastor at University AME Zion Church, was one of several speakers who has advocated for the council to adopt these reforms. He also asked the council to keep the reform effort in the public eye.
The city, Smith said, has three options.
"We can stay the way we've always been. We can sort of push this change into random administration pools. Or we can be bold and make some hard decisions," Smith told the council. "I encourage you to not let the forces that push negotiations (into the) background and push change back to control this narrative.
"As you saw with 2,000 people out in the street on Saturday, there is a ton of emotion and a ton of push behind this and I think there is the reality that we need to do something with policing and it has to be done now," Smith said.