As protesters took to Palo Alto streets on Thursday evening to demonstrate for police reforms against brutality aimed at black people and other people of color, members of the Human Relations Commission met to craft a series of recommendations on reforms and oversight of the city's law enforcement agency.
The commission voted to deliver a letter to the City Council that would seek a study and implementation of key policies within 90 days, and members resolved to take an active role in police reform and broad community engagement.
"The Human Relations Commission is the voice of the community. We take the pulse of the community," commission Chair the Rev. Kaloma Smith said. "We have to do a lot of listening in this process."
The commission's letter would focus on recommendations for the city to study and implement "8 Can't Wait" policies within 90 days. The group is also calling on the council to consider adjusting police hiring policies to ban candidates who have prior disciplinary actions; review the Police Department's disciplinary and hiring policies; and direct the Police Department to not promote employees with disciplinary actions.
In a broader action, they called on the city to begin a robust diversity and inclusion program that would start with implicit and structural bias training with all levels of city staff and city commissions, and that the program should be "data driven."
The commission also plans to recommend that the council evaluate possibly defunding the Police Department and use the money to support social services programs or, alternatively, that the council increase finances to the Community Services Department for those programs in the fiscal year 2021 budget.
Considering the scope of the work the city needs to do on race relations and reforms, the Human Relations Commission also will advise that the council reinstate seven commissioners, instead of five, across all of the city's various panels so they can help take on the extra workload.
"There are years of work that we have to do. The HRC has the ability to be laser focused on it. The reality is that local governments are stretched to the max with COVID-19 and all of their other issues. Most staff are still struggling working from home. Where a body like the HRC can help is we can fill in the gaps and work hard. This body can really work this thing through," Smith said by phone on Friday.
In a separate motion, members unanimously supported opening up Foothills Park to residents outside of Palo Alto, a move backed by more than 90 community leaders who explained their position in a joint letter delivered to the City Council this week.
For its own work, the commission would emphasize community engagement and work with community partners to develop recommendations in the second quarter of the upcoming fiscal year.
"The challenge in dealing with systemic issues is that governments can miss things. You have to, have to, have to have community engagement," Smith said by phone.
Smith is hopeful that reforms will happen. The City Council's usual deliberative process seems to be uncharacteristically speeding up on policing and racial reforms, moving from resolutions to plans and potentially enacting policy and action.
"Those are good signs for those who watch the politics of Palo Alto," he said. "I have never been so engaged with the City Council, city management and the chief of police as in the last two weeks. I sense a resolve to get something done of significance."
Commissioner Steven Lee, who was instrumental in forming a policing ad hoc committee for the commission, said that he is also seeing more commitment on the part of the commission and the city.
"Policing issues are very important and are at the core of the community. We need to make sure that everyone in the community is treated fairly and equally. We've known for some time that there are police issues in Palo Alto," he said, including some allegations of excessive use of force.
Lee said he has sensed a culture that is resistant to change and reform. Two years ago, the commission was asked by the Police Department to "rubber stamp" a body-worn camera policy when officers were preparing to begin wearing the devices. Instead, Lee wanted to review the entire department camera policy, since it was written a decade earlier for patrol car cameras.
"A lot has changed in public discourse since then. We had the opportunity to re-engage the community," he said, but noted his suggestions were viewed as an overreach.
He also noted that when the state passed Senate Bill 1421 to broadly allow the release of records associated with police over excessive use of force, sexual assault and dishonesty, the city held back records made prior to the effective date of the bill. They withheld the records pending the outcome of lawsuits throughout the state, even though the bill included all records.
Lee recalled he and Smith expressed concerns when the issue came to light. Other police departments, such as Redwood City, took a more transparent approach and did release the older records. Palo Alto only released them after a court decision, he said. "There was resistance to reform even when there was some legislation," he said.
With excessive use of force and race relations now being the issues of the moment, Lee said he has seen a maturation of some council members' and commissioners' views. He said he is glad his colleagues and the City Council are taking a more serious look at the issues. "The proof will be in the pudding if they want to follow up on it," he said.
From Lee's perspective, the commission has a responsibility to further the narrative in dynamic ways, which hasn't always been shared by some commissioners or council members.
Because so many issues the commission tackles — such as LGBTQ rights and challenges faced by ethnic minorities — intersect with the community and with policing, he sees the commission as having a greater role and responsibility.
"Our job as the Human Relations Commission is to push for reform," he said.