Time for our police chief to step down | November 7, 2008 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - November 7, 2008

Time for our police chief to step down

Repeated communication gaffes undermine public confidence and cripple Lynne Johnson's ability to lead department

Effective leaders are good communicators. Public-sector leaders in places such as Palo Alto must be especially good communicators because citizens are smart, intensely involved, and don't hesitate to ask questions, challenge assumptions, or, fairly or not, protest actions taken or words spoken.

In the broad realm of government-citizen interactions, nothing is more important than clear and sensitive communications to the public on law-enforcement actions and policies.

Police Chief Lynne Johnson set off a firestorm last week by stating at a community meeting that her officers, as part of their efforts to solve recent strong-arm robberies, would be stopping African-American males and having "consensual" interviews to determine who they were and what they were doing in town.

The chief has since apologized, retracted her statements and acknowledged she misspoke. She has done everything humanly possible to repair the damage of her poorly crafted words.

It is not enough.

Based on our long-time history with Chief Johnson, we do not for a minute believe she is racist, a supporter of racial profiling, or anything other than a strong advocate for modern policing practices that are respectful of civil liberties. As one of the pioneer female police chiefs in California, she has been a strong advocate for increasing diversity of all kinds within police departments. That makes today's mess tragic.

The problem — why it is essential that Chief Johnson now retire — is that she has repeatedly fumbled one of her most important job responsibilities: communicating effectively with the public.

The meeting last week was not hastily called together. It was a carefully planned forum for the purpose of reassuring the public that the police were taking all appropriate actions to apprehend the perpetrators, who were believed to be black, Latino and white, depending on the robbery.

Chief Johnson should not only have been prepared for the issue of race to come up but proactively addressed how her department was navigating the sensitive area of pursuing only vaguely described suspects while protecting the civil liberties of racial minorities that live, work or visit friends in Palo Alto.

Instead, a question raising a legitimate, predictable concern about racial profiling put her on the defensive and led to her inarticulate attempt to explain the department's investigative efforts — compounded after the meeting in TV interviews.

If this were the first instance of this shortcoming it might be forgivable. But Johnson's poor judgment and faulty execution of public communication has plagued her tenure as chief.

The year-long saga of the police investigation of the Children's Theatre, which ultimately resulted in no prosecutions, could be a textbook case at police chief school as to how poor communication with the public can lead to rampant speculation, innocent victims and unintended consequences. On several occasions, Chief Johnson had to be persuaded by others, including the Weekly, that she owed the public an explanation and progress report on the investigation.

And when she finally announced that no charges would be filed (after the district attorney's office declined to prosecute), she shocked everyone by laying out the allegations she would have made in a prosecution — when those accused could never defend themselves in court.

Less visible to the public, over the past half dozen years the department has too often failed to get the word out about important crimes, incidents or hazardous circumstances until many hours have passed.

These are just examples of public-communication failures. It is troubling to think about what similar problems may exist with the chief's internal departmental communications.

Lynne Johnson is an honest and devoted police chief who came up through the ranks from patrol officer in 1975 to field training officer, sergeant, lieutenant and captain before being named assistant chief in 1988 and chief in 2003. Her service should be respected and honored.

But there comes a time when flaws become so obvious and circumstances so tangled that new leadership is required — for the good of the department, the city and the community.

Sadly, we believe that point was reached last week.


Posted by getReal, a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Nov 7, 2008 at 3:14 pm

Let's demand the chief resigns. That'll sell more newspapers. Get real, you editorial idiots. Is the chief a good cop, has she led the force well for years, are the crime stats in PA better than elsewhere? I'd rather see the entire editorial board resign - because stupid ramblings like yours mean it's time for younger and smarter editors.

Posted by Joe, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 7, 2008 at 5:02 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Marty, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 7, 2008 at 7:43 pm

25 years of service and we should judge a person by a couple of mis-steps. If we were all held to such standards I doubt any of us would have jobs anymore. I think it is ludicrous to call for anyones resignation when you compare 25 years of service to a few incidences where someone didn't choose the best words to use.
It is total irresponsible journalism to call for her resignation.
Who are you to make such an assumption?

Posted by Hills resident, a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Nov 7, 2008 at 9:02 pm

I intend to avoid Palo Alto until this crime spree subsides.

Posted by George, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 8, 2008 at 8:43 am

It's time for Jay Thorwaldson to go.

He is quick to call people racists, for reasons known only to him.

Thorwaldson has spent years on the sidelines--throwing word bombs.

Palo Alto is long overdue watching this low-brow hit the bricks and never darken our fine town again.

Posted by Helen, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 9, 2008 at 12:50 am

Thank you for taking a brave stance, Palo Alto Weekly! Good editorial.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 9, 2008 at 3:55 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Hoodies and gangbangers are not representatives of Blacks any more than KKK and Skinheads represent me. We all have an obligation to cooperate with law enforcement, just as we have an obligation to ensure that law enforcement does not misuse the authority we deputize them with.

Posted by Jerry L, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 10, 2008 at 11:58 am

To paraphrase: Let he who is without any fault cast the first stone.

I think it is high time we step back and look at the big picture. Do we have a good police department or not? I think we do. Over the past 30 plus years I have had a few dealings with the police and, thinking back, it was all professional and proper.

How could ANYONE meet such lofty standards that every utterance be well thought out and perfect, in public or in private?

With the exception of the over reaction of several City Council members and the city manager, most of the outcry seems to be coming from people who don't even live in Palo Alto.

I say, give it a rest.

Posted by Bill, a resident of Woodside
on Nov 10, 2008 at 1:23 pm

It's good to read that most Palo Alto Residents are not persuaded by the histerical outbreaks and over the wall comments by some of the political and journalistic few.

Posted by HOLYCROW!, a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 10, 2008 at 4:20 pm

wow, anyone see what is posted on the bottom of the other story about this weeks march? only registered users can post? is this a move from behind the scenes of the City Council to track who their detractors are? is this the beginning of Big Brother right here in Palo Alto?

Posted by reallydisgustednow, a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 10, 2008 at 5:36 pm

reallydisgustednow is a registered user.

I am really amused, but not in a good way. I have been checking these message boards frequently, and some well written cogent arguments have been deleted by Palo Alto On Line Staff.

Then I see the comment of a Palo Alto High School 'community' member who probably just learned the word 'vitriolic' yesterday, and who apparently feels quite comfortable calling women 'witches' and THAT comment remains.

Ok to slam on a woman huh? Nice. Speaks volumes about your parenting. Or lack thereof.

If you are going to leave the name calling spewing's of juvenile's (whether that be in age or maturity level) then you should leave the postings of people who may not agree with this paper, the Mayor or the City Council. As long as there are no obscenities, racial invectives or incitements to violence, what is the problem?

Posted by sid, a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 10, 2008 at 5:42 pm

I thought the Chief was a protected minority?

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Professorville
on Nov 10, 2008 at 5:51 pm

reallydisgustednow - I saw the post before it was deleted and before the "lock down" - I believe it was the obscenity that caused it to be closed.

Posted by reallydisgustednow, a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 10, 2008 at 5:58 pm

reallydisgustednow is a registered user.

Thanks anonymous, but I am referring to several of the blogs all weekend on any topics relating to this issue. I know some abuse the privilege, but not all. What I have been doing is copying, cutting and pasting the entire pages and saving in my email. Then I go back and check a few hours later.

I have copies of several comments that were erased that were quite well written, thoughtful and insightful. And one hour later, they were also DELETED! The commonality? They did not agree with the views of this paper or the City Council. I see that other comments are left on that disagree also, but the comments I have saved that were deleted were better written and were obviously powerful. They were comments so beautifully expressed that they may have swayed a few local opinions and the City fathers don't want that happening, do they?

Now, lets see how long THIS comment lasts.

Posted by Outside Observer, a resident of another community
on Nov 10, 2008 at 7:43 pm


Well it hasn't been locked down yet, but with useless band-width wasting posts like that of "NO CENSORING" it may be soon.

This post is the one just following the one from "NO CENSORING". Hopefully that post will be pulled, and if so then my reference here will be it's only acknowledgment.

To "NO CENSORING", if you want to be taken seriously, then please support your statements with facts and examples.

Posted by Carla, a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 11, 2008 at 4:47 pm

Carla is a registered user.

It is also time for the Editor of this publication to step down for requesting unwarranted demands!

By the way, there is sensoring going on on these posts. When someone states something that the Editor doesn't agree with, it gets deleted. When there is profanity, such as someone calling the Police Chief a "whore", it does't. I'm begining to stop taking this publication seriously.

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