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.