East Palo Alto workshop aims to bridge police-community divide | February 13, 2015 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 13, 2015

East Palo Alto workshop aims to bridge police-community divide

Police auditor LaDoris Cordell urges residents to know their rights, demand transparency from police department

by Joshua Alvarez

"There are three things you should never do when a police officer confronts you," retired Judge LaDoris H. Cordell told an audience in St. Francis of Assisi Church in East Palo Alto on Monday night. She pointed to a large paper easel with "R.A.T." scrawled on it. "Never, ever run away, argue with an officer, or touch an officer."

Hosted by local activists and community organizers, Cordell's "Know Your Rights" workshop was a response to the upswell of anger across the nation over police-community relations, particularly among people of color.

"I think the lesson of Ferguson is that it was the result of the community not being in control of their own local government," said Gail Ortega, who has been involved in organizing three similar events around the Bay Area. "So, we just want to tell the community, 'Hey, y'all got the power.'"

"When Ferguson happened," said Father Larry Goodie, a priest at St. Francis, "I did not think the protests would accomplish much. What's needed is a conversation between the faith community and the police department."

Cordell, who now serves as independent police auditor for the City of San Jose, explained on Monday the rights citizens have when interacting with police, but she also called on residents to demand change in their police department.

"As residents of East Palo Alto you have rights and responsibilities," said Cordell to the predominantly black and Latino audience. "If a police officer is rude to you, or you think he or she has done something wrong, you can ask for their name and badge number. They are required by law to provide it."

Although the workshop was geared towards youth, a majority of the approximately 100 people in attendance were parents, not all of them residents of East Palo Alto.

Teri Alugas said her adult son has repeatedly experienced discrimination from police despite not having done anything wrong.

"I'm just glad he has had good instincts and never has argued, run away, or touched an officer," the Los Altos resident said.

She described police-community relations in the town as "OK" but said it could improve. Her sorority will be hosting a similar event with Cordell at Stanford University.

Teenagers who attended the workshop and spoke with the Weekly said they haven't had bad experiences with police officers. But almost every one could think of a friend or relative who has.

"I think it was cool to learn about my rights," said Kaelinn Aviles, a freshman at Menlo-Atherton High School. "I would tell my friends to go to (a workshop)."

Audience members Monday also shared anecdotes with Cordell about their interactions with police officers. Many of the anecdotes centered on unexplained arrests and warrantless home searches. Some of the stories, many told through a Spanish translator, were cleared up as following legitimate police protocol after further questions from Cordell. But other stories left her troubled.

She repeatedly urged the audience to demand the establishment of an independent police auditor for the city. She also said she supported the requirement that police wear body cameras.

The taxpayer, she reminded the audience, owns the police department and should therefore demand transparency.

"The only cities from Gilroy to San Francisco with an independent auditor are San Jose and Palo Alto," Cordell said. "And the only reason Palo Alto has it is because I was on the City Council and kept hearing stories of people of color coming from East Palo Alto and Menlo Park into Palo Alto and not having good interactions with the police. It takes the people and those who are in office to make this happen."

She also brought copies of the San Jose Police Department (SJPD) Duty Manual, a 600-page document detailing all the rules governing police officers in San Jose.

"This document is publicly available on the SJPD website. You can view a digital version and search terms within it. That should be your right as a taxpayer," she said.

However, as of right now, the East Palo Alto Police Department manual is not online and a hard copy is only available by request.

Police Chief Albert Pardini told the audience that he and his staff are currently updating the language in the manual and are working on making it available online. Mayor Lisa Yarbrough-Gauthier announced that she and Pardini are discussing the establishment of an independent auditor.

Cordell, a graduate of Stanford Law School, practiced law in East Palo Alto and then became the first female African-American judge in all of northern California when she was appointed to the Municipal Court of Santa Clara County in 1982. She later served in the Superior Court of Santa Clara County, from which she retired in 2001. She then served one term on the Palo Alto City Council, from 2003-07, and in 2010 she was appointed by the San Jose City Council to the position of independent police auditor, which she continues to hold today.

Pardini said the workshop could help strengthen relations between the community and the police.

"It's essential citizens know their rights and responsibilities. They need to cooperate with the police, but they should also question the police," he said. "There are 36 police officers including me; that's not a lot of people. When you see an officer out on the street not engaged in something, I would encourage community members to go up and greet the officer and say you went to a meeting with Chief Pardini and 'He said I should introduce myself.'"

Cordell has led numerous similar workshops around the Bay Area, but this was the first one she's done in San Mateo County.

"It's my goal to bring the message to communities of color so that they know their responsibilities and rights," she said. "My heart is in East Palo Alto. My practice was on Bell and University for 6.5 years. This community has some fantastic, talented young people, most of whom are people of color. There are big issues everywhere in the country about the police, and East Palo Alto is no different."

Ortega concurred.

"My belief is every kid in vulnerable communities should be exposed to this information and spend an hour with an informed person who can answer their questions," he said. "In every community of color and in every community that is economically disadvantaged, police can be perceived as occupying forces. The challenge is for community leaders to step up and educate the community so that they can demand the type of policing they want."

Freelance writer Joshua Alvarez can be emailed at joshua.alvarez1189@gmail.com.

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