Palo Alto could stop collecting traffic-stop data | June 4, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - June 4, 2010

Palo Alto could stop collecting traffic-stop data

Demographic reports may be scrapped to trim expenses, narrow budget gap

by Gennady Sheyner

The Palo Alto Police Department's tally of traffic stops, broken down by racial categories, has always raised more questions than it answered.

The data charts and color-coded bar graphs show the number of African-American, Hispanic, white, Asian and "other" drivers whom the police have pulled over in the preceding three months, along with reasons for the stop, the probable cause and the drivers' cities of residence. These reports generally fall under the radar, but the data had a brief period of prominence in the fall and winter of 2008, when former Police Chief Lynne Johnson made comments that many interpreted as an endorsement of racial profiling — comments that ultimately led to her resignation.

The department began collecting demographic traffic-stop data in 2000 and filed its first report in 2001. But now, with the city facing a projected $7.3 million budget gap in fiscal year 2011, the practice appears to be on its way out. On May 17, the City Council Finance Committee recommended eliminating the crime analyst position charged with producing the detailed reports, a move that would save the city $116,000. The full council is scheduled to vote on the committee's recommendations and adopt the budget later this month.

The crime analyst position is one of several the department could eliminate this year, along with two detectives responsible for investigating financial crimes, a traffic-enforcement officer and a community-outreach specialist. Police Chief Dennis Burns said that while the crime analyst position is important, his priority is to make sure the department has enough officers to fulfill its more urgent priorities of ensuring public safety and responding to emergencies.

"It's great to have it, but we have to contribute to the bottom line and come up with cuts," Burns said. "Hopefully, we'll be doing some things that will make up for it."

Burns said the department has adopted new technologies and measures in the past decade that help ensure police accountability. Police cruisers are now equipped with cameras; the department is now regularly reviewed by an independent police auditor; and every officer's performance is now analyzed in what Burns called an "early intervention system" — a database of statistics that helps department administrators identify unusual patterns in officers' behavior.

Palo Alto officers also participate in "Meet the Chief" meetings and receive regular training on fair and impartial policing. A month ago, they attended a lecture on racial profiling from Lorie Fridell, a University of South Florida criminology professor and one of the nation's leading experts on the subject. Fridell, who has advised Burns on impartial policing, also held a seminar on racial profiling in Palo Alto last year. At that time, she told the Weekly that the demographic data, while a useful tool to promote transparency, is difficult to interpret and liable to misinterpretation.

One might, for example, infer from looking at the numbers that African-American drivers are pulled over disproportionately (11 percent of the drivers pulled over between January 1 and March 31 of this year were African-American), given that African-American residents only make up 2 percent of the Palo Alto's population, according to the U.S. Census.

That argument, police are quick to say, ignores the drivers who don't live in Palo Alto but who visit the city or regularly pass through it.

Despite the difficulty in analyzing the numbers, there are those who want the department to continue collecting them. John Abraham, a statistician at Stanford University, has urged the Finance Committee to continue funding the reports. Independent Police Auditor Michael Gennaco wrote in his February audit that the department should continue to collect the data, despite its "shortcomings, complexity" and expense.

"First, data collection conveys important messages both to the community and within the police department that the City is concerned with the specter of bias-based policing and is not shy about providing to its public such stop data," Gennaco wrote. "Moreover, even if data collection cannot at present prove or disprove bias-based policing, it can produce important information that an agency should have regarding the work of its officers."

But the issue hasn't resonated with the public at large. At the May 17 budget hearing, residents were more interested in making sure the council continues to fund traffic enforcers and school crossing guards. Abraham was the only speaker to mention the demographic reports.

Ray Bacchetti, a member of the Human Relations Commission and a volunteer at the Police Department, told the Weekly he has yet to notice "anything of value" to come out of the demographic reports. The data could become useful for later studies and analyses, he said, but given the city's budget gap, it's only natural that the city revisit the subject of data collection.

Instead of spending money collecting and analyzing these obscure reports, the department should continue to invest in training programs that promote fair and unbiased policing, Bacchetti said.

"When you have a report that's produced routinely, that is fairly labor intensive and no good use is made of it, it doesn't seem that it should remain on autopilot," Bacchetti told the Weekly.

Burns said he doesn't expect the end of demographic-data collection to significantly impede his ongoing effort to promote transparency and to strengthen the department's relationship with minority communities. Over the past year, he has been regularly meeting with an advisory group that includes members of faith-based and minority communities to discuss and debate the department's policies.

The goal, Burns said, is to both educate the community about the department's actions and to hear the public's perspective — in short, to promote transparency through good old-fashioned conversation.

Harold Boyd, a member of the Police Advisory Committee who as a North Carolina native lived through segregation, said he believes it's important for the Police Department to collect hard data and continue its efforts ensure racial profiling doesn't exist in Palo Alto.

Boyd did not take a stance on the issue of demographic traffic-stop reports, which he said the advisory committee hasn't focused on. But he said that if the department stops collecting this data, it should show what else it is doing to ensure fair policing.

"I believe hard data is important, but it's by no means the only method of helping to achieve this goal," Boyd said. "What I'd like to know is, if you take away one thing, what are you replacing it with?"


Try your hand at closing Palo Alto's projected $7.3 million budget gap in fiscal year 2011. Palo Alto Online presents "Hard Choices," an interactive budget tool. Of the dozens of programs and services Palo Alto City Manager James Keene has identified for elimination or reduction, which would you choose?

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at


Like this comment
Posted by PAPD-Critic
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 3, 2010 at 10:10 pm

Outsourcing the legal, HR, IT departments alone would save the city 2.5 million annually.

Like this comment
Posted by Raise-the-Speed-Limit
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 4, 2010 at 10:45 am

The traffic stop data collection has always been less than perfect, showing that the Police Department management is more math challenged that not. Additionally, the statistical analysis needed requires a bit more data than the police have been willing to collect.

There are a couple "red flags" in the data that should have been noticed by the City Council, but have not. These "flags" indicate that there are a lot of traffic stops without citations. So, the question of "why are the police stopping people and not citing them" should have been answered by this exercise. It was not.

We probably should be wondering if the speed limit being too low is a problem that needs to be addressed. But that question didn't come up either.

Given the cost, and annoyance, and the lack of anything of substance that has been revealed by this exercise, and the clear proof that no one at city hall knows anything about statistics .. what's the point of continuing to pay for this exercise in futility?

Time to drop this activity until there is some tangible evidence that there is a problem that needs to be monitored.

Like this comment
Posted by Convoluted
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 4, 2010 at 11:43 am

Raise the speed limit says: "We probably should be wondering if the speed limit being too low is a problem that needs to be addressed."

The speed limit is set by the State not individual cities. On all arterials, collector and residential streets in Palo Alto the speed limit is the 85th percentile of the average speed on that individual street, and the speed limit cannot be less than 25 mph.

Yes, for the average driver this analysis of speed limits seems to be very convoluted and barely understandable but it is done this way to prevent "entrapment".

Even on residential streets the speed limit cannot go below 25 mph that too is State law. That is why we have speed table and not speed bumps because you can drive over speed tables at 25 mph.

Like this comment
Posted by bill
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 4, 2010 at 12:28 pm

Mr. Bacchetti's comments sum up the problems with data collection. And the police auditor says, "..cannot prove or disprove bias-based profiling..can produce important information..." without suggesting after 10 years, how to use the information.

Until one can show how to use these data, let's save the money and let Chief Burns use the other tools noted above to decrease or eliminate any racial profiling - if it exists.

Like this comment
Posted by Raise-the-Speed-Limit
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 4, 2010 at 12:29 pm

> The speed limit is set by the State not individual cities.

With all due respect .. but do you have the slightest idea what you are talking about?

The 25 mph was set in Palo Alto around 1948 by the police chief at the time, a fellow by the name of Zurcher. At the time, South PA didn't exist, and he felt that the speed limit was appropriate for the somewhat narrow streets of North PA that had been in place since before 1900, in some cases.

The State does require that cities abide by the so-called 85% rule, which effectively says that traffic tickets will only "stick" in court if a traffic survey has been conducted recently, and that violators are travelling faster than 85% of the speed of the prevailing traffic.

Like this comment
Posted by Raise-the-Speed-Limit
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 4, 2010 at 12:33 pm

> That is why we have speed table and not speed bumps because
> you can drive over speed tables at 25 mph.

Both have been tried here in PA. Most people seemed to prefer the speed tables, as they seem to be less "jolting".

Like this comment
Posted by Confused
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 23, 2010 at 1:34 pm

They do have someone with statisical knowlegde. My question is why don't they use her skills to analyze the data when they have someone with this level of education? Read here on page 38: Web Link
What is the police department trying to achieve if they don't allow them to interpret the data?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.