Election season is in full swing across Palo Alto, where campaign signs are becoming more noticeable across town.
To assist local voters in their decision at the ballot box, the Weekly asked this year's seven City Council candidates to fill out questionnaires about their qualifications, vision for the city and priorities if elected. They also explained where they stand on housing, climate change, rail crossings and policing and crime, among other topics.
The candidates' answers on all these topics will be published as separate articles, one per day, through Sept. 19. Here's what they had to say to the following question: What are your greatest concerns when it comes to crime and to how the city's police department operates?
An Increase in brazen street crimes has many in the community on edge. At the same time, not everybody feels safe calling the police. Council budgets need to invest in, and support, a new and improved police force that is embraced by the community.
New ways of deploying officers that are more effective in preventing crime need to be evaluated and implemented. We also need to assess better options for attracting and retaining diverse, high-quality public safety staff. We know we are losing recruits and existing officers to other jurisdictions. In prior budget cuts, police have lost their entire traffic patrols, specialty units, and some senior officers.
In addition, we need to evaluate and build on initial progress on changing police officer arrest procedures ("8 Can't Wait"), retraining officers to address racial bias, and adding "civilian" staffing for duties better handled with different skills than sworn officers - notably the PERT (Psychiatric Emergency Response Team) to handle mental health situations. This cultural reform is critically important, but not easy to achieve. Council and the public need transparency and regular updates from the new Police Chief — and the independent police auditor — to ensure it moves forward successfully.
The Chief will be under a lot of scrutiny for both the changes being put in place and the performance of the department. I think we have chosen an innovative and skilled leader in Police Chief Andrew Binder. He showed boldness in week one by reversing the controversial practice of encrypting police communications and he is committed to deeper community engagement with residents, moving beyond "business as usual" and breaking new ground.
The national and local response to the murder of George Floyd was a woefully late recognition of what Black and Brown people have always faced at the hands of law enforcement and vigilante civilians. As a mother of a Black-presenting (though multiracial) son, I feared for his life as he came of age in Palo Alto.
I've discussed this and other issues with former chief Dennis Burns. I've also had a good brief conversation about race with chief Andrew Binder. I appreciate the comprehensive search that went into appointing chief Binder, and I want to see the city continue to bring that same level of attention to hiring, training, and promotion when it comes to the rest of the police force.
I also want our city's leaders whether elected, hired, or appointed, to stop avoiding talking about race. You can't change what you won't name. For example, I attended the council meeting where Binder was formally confirmed and noticed that nobody in the room mentioned Black people and instead multiple speakers danced around the topic.
Relatedly, we should enforce mandatory unconscious bias training for all first responders, and create a system to track and evaluate demographic data showing whom officers stop and why, and whom neighbors complain about and why.
Also, as there is ample evidence that canine units attack people of color at a much higher rate, we should do away with canine units or keep them only for drug searches.
Finally, I've met the PERT team and am excited by this opportunity for law enforcement to augment their ability to help and reduce their ability to harm. I would support allocating funds to increase PERT 4x so we can have a PERT response at any time of day, any day of the week.
Our community is concerned about recent reports of crimes like catalytic converter theft, package theft, and jewelry theft that has occurred while victims are sitting in their cars or out walking. I have talked to many residents who want increased police presence in their neighborhoods.
We still have work to do in our police department around use of force. The most recent Independent Police Auditor's report suggests several recommendations around K-9 protocols, body-worn cameras, and incident reviews.
I am optimistic that our new Police Chief Andrew Binder is working on these and other issues. I also support the City's Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT), which pairs a mental health professional with a police officer when responding to calls from a person in mental distress.
The Police department staff was cut during the pandemic due to budget shortfalls. I support the proposed business tax, which will be on the November ballot, and which will provide funds for public safety including staffing up the Police department.
I believe that the greatest concerns for Palo Alto when it comes to crime are violent crimes in our downtown areas, property crimes in our residential neighborhoods, including property theft, burglary, car break-ins, and theft of vehicle parts such as catalytic converters, and hate crimes. We are hearing about these more and more.
Our police department should operate in a way that serves the community by addressing these concerns in a responsible, transparent, unbiased, and accountable manner. Recently, the department has begun partnering with complementary programs such as PERT (Psychiatric Emergency Response Team) to respond to calls involving mental health issues with a trained mental health clinician alongside the police officer. I endorse this approach as it will deescalate these situations and avoid criminalizing mental or behavioral health issues. In addition, deescalating these situations will lower the police resources required, freeing up law enforcement and increasing their availability for addressing violent crimes and property crimes.
I've been concerned with ensuring that our police act in culturally competent, unbiased ways, especially with the rise of Asian hate crimes and in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. To address this, I support ongoing diversity training for members of law enforcement, with a special emphasis on identifying hate crimes and how to properly investigate them.
I was also concerned with the police department's use of encrypted communications and support the decision of Chief Binder to use unencrypted channels of communication, despite state law allowing continued use of encryption technologies.
I want to see public safety spending and staffing restored to pre-Covid levels at least. People need to feel safe in their homes and in stores and restaurants. We have to recruit new officers and better retain the ones we have. I have seen a number of improvements in police administration, such as the PERT program that helps support the police by having healthcare professionals ride with officers to deal with encounters with people with mental health issues. I support increasing the frequency of independent audits of police accountability and use of force. Fact-based understanding of the department's performance is an important step toward continuing improvement.
I had a conversation this week with Andrew Binder, the new Chief of Police, who states that we need to restore Public Safety in our town by hiring appropriate Police staff (we have nine openings now) and by using more technology (potentially the license plate readers if those are being approved by the community). Andrew pointed out that the removal of the radio encryption to restore public access to communications is getting nothing but positive feedback from community members, and I am glad to hear that.
The posts I see on Nextdoor and the feedback I get from business owners in Downtown are just depressing, and that needs to be stopped. I interacted with PA Police and Menlo Police when my son's bike got stolen last Fall, and I felt I was on my own. We were told to file a police report, and did. But as we found our bike being sold online, I contacted police again and let them know the thief was actually selling dozens of other bikes too. Police's story didn't change: "We can't do anything if you don't have the serial number, and your bike is around $600 anyway, so we can't arrest that person even if we prove that it is your bike." In response, I walked to the seller's house myself and called the police on my way, asking them repeatedly to send an officer. They spent days explaining why they can't help instead of simply spending two minutes retrieving the bike. The officer gave me a ride back, with the bike on the police car too, and we chatted regarding the challenges of the department, which was really being understaffed. I don't want other community members to have similar experiences. We simply need to improve our Public Safety.
Growing up in Palo Alto, it always felt like a safe city, and largely it still is. Recently though there has been an increase in property crime due to a police department operating at less than full capacity. We need to allocate to the police department the resources it needs to restore itself to full capacity.