At the time, Palo Alto's commitment to racial equity and officer accountability was facing heightened scrutiny. Just months prior to the June meeting, the council changed its agreement with the city's independent police auditor to explicitly exclude personnel matters from review, a move widely seen as an attempt to block the auditor's investigation of a lieutenant who made a comment with a racial slur to a Black police officer in 2014. And the city was facing two separate lawsuits over incidents that involved violent arrests of Hispanic individuals, both of which were captured on video.
With residents demanding that the city do better, City Manager Ed Shikada joined then-Police Chief Bob Jonsen, the Rev. Paul Bains, who serves as police chaplain, and the Rev. Kaloma Smith, chair of the city's Human Relations Commissions, in issuing a statement that acknowledged that "the actions of a few officers in the past may have caused our community to question their commitment to the law and policy."
"However, through mutual respect, trust and a deep regard for the Constitutional rights of all, we remain more steadfast today than ever to continue to support our community through these uncertain times."
The June 2020 demonstrations sparked a period of reform in the Police Department, including adoption of new policies to ban chokeholds and emphasize de-escalation techniques; the creation of the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT), which pairs an officer with a behavioral clinician for calls involving mental health crises; and an expansion of the independent auditor's purview, which now includes a reviews of virtually all incidents in which an officer uses force.
Andrew Binder, who led the reform efforts as assistant police chief and who in August took the helm as the new police chief, pointed in a recent interview at the various mechanisms that the department has in place to ensure officer accountability: body-worn cameras, an independent auditor and the department's own internal process for vetting every civilian complaint.
"As the chief, I feel very strongly that there is no place for bias-based policing in this department," Binder said.
Even with these efforts, an analysis of the 962 stops of individuals by Palo Alto police officers during the first three months of this year indicates that the same types of racial disparities seen in other jurisdictions across California also exist locally: Black individuals were more likely than white individuals to experience intrusive actions like handcuffing and use of force; they underwent "consensual" searches more often; and they faced bigger odds of being stopped based on a "call for service," which is initiated by a suspicious resident or a dispatcher rather than by an officer.
These are just some of the findings that can be gleaned from the data that the Palo Alto Police Department submitted earlier this year to the state Department of Justice to comply with the Racial and Identity Profiling Act (RIPA), a 2015 law that requires officers to submit information on each stop (defined as any detention or search, and not limited to traffic stops). That information includes race, gender, age, reason for stop and actions taken for every stop. While larger law enforcement agencies such as the California Highway Patrol, the San Francisco Police Department and the San Jose Police Department have been submitting stop data for several years now, smaller ones like Palo Alto were required by law to begin collecting it starting Jan. 1, 2022.
The Weekly has obtained through the Public Records Act the first batch of data that the city had submitted to the Department of Justice earlier this year, which covers 962 stops made through April 11. The Department of Justice plans to publish its first annual report encompassing all "Wave 4" agencies — those with fewer than 334 officers — in April 2023. The report from the specially appointed RIPA Board, a 16-member panel that includes law enforcement officials, academics, community organizers, members of the clergy and other stakeholders, will also analyze trends in the data and recommend policy revisions. The board's stated mandate is "eliminating racial and identity profiling, and improving diversity and racial and identity sensitivity in law enforcement."
The inclusion of more than 400 agencies that fall into the final wave will represent the largest leap to date for California's effort to collect meaningful police data. In April 2019, the state's eight largest law-enforcement agencies had to submit their data. In 2020, 18 agencies reported data on their stops. The list grew to 58 the following year, which included agencies with between 334 and 666 officers as well those that elected to start collecting and submitting their information earlier than mandated. The RIPA Board has issued reports for each wave of agencies and next year's report will cover close to 500 departments across the state, according to DOJ staff.
For researchers and activists pushing for police reform, this is a huge deal. Deepak Premkumar, research fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan nonprofit think tank that has been been analyzing the RIPA data and issuing reports on racial disparities, told the RIPA Board in July that stops data is "the farthest upstream we'll get on criminal justice contact." Last October, the Public Policy Institute published a study that found that individuals perceived as Black were three times more likely to be searched during a police stopinal justice than individuals perceived to be as white.
Premkumar said in an interview with the Weekly that the RIPA information offers the public insights into both policing and into broader questions pertaining to the state's crim system. It also gives law enforcement agencies a uniform framework of data that they can use to revise their strategies more analytically.
"When we're concerned about questions of racial disparity and use of force, it's pretty important to understand: Who do the police regularly interact with?" he said.
DISPARITIES IN WHO'S BEING STOPPED: Races that are overrepresented in stops
The data obtained by the Palo Alto Weekly reveals that police stops in Palo Alto reflect many of the patterns that the RIPA Board and organizations such as Public Policy Institute have identified in larger agencies.
Individuals who are perceived by the officer to be Black or Hispanic stopped at a higher rate relative to their share of the city's population, while those perceived to be white and Asian are stopped at a lower rate. While Black individuals make up less than 2% of Palo Alto's population according to the 2020 Census, more than 11% of the stops of individuals who were perceived as Black by the officer. And nearly a third of the police stops involved individuals whom the officer perceived to be Hispanic, despite the fact that the city's Hispanic population is about 5.7%, according to the Census.
White and Asian individuals, who make up 56% and 33% of the city's population, respectively, comprised 35% and 9% of the reported police stops.
Experts in analyzing police data are quick to point out that comparing stop data to the demographics of the residential population does not, in and of itself, prove racial profiling or police bias. The RIPA Board noted in its most recent report that while such comparisons are common, they're based on assumptions that the distribution of those who are stopped would be similar to those who reside in the geographic region.
Premkumar made the same point in an August presentation to the RIPA Board. He told the board that comparing community demographics with police data is relatively controversial and that there is dispute over the appropriate benchmarks that should be used for evaluating racial disparities.
"Some feel that especially for vehicle stops, perhaps a more appropriate benchmark would be the commuting population, or if a lot of stops are taking place in a particular neighborhood, using those demographics rather than the broad city," he said in his presentation.
In Palo Alto, a job-rich city in which the daytime population more than doubles that of the nighttime, the discrepancies between the stop figures and the Census data may be particularly pronounced, with commuters accounting for a larger share of the stops than elsewhere.
A Weekly analysis of the stop data indicated the vast majority police stops occur not in residential neighborhoods but commuter corridors such as El Camino Real, University Avenue, Middlefield Road, Oregon Expressway/Page Mill Road, San Antonio Road and Alma Street (see map), which suggests that a significant proportion of the individuals stopped are not residents but visitors and employees. Of the 962 stops analyzed by the Weekly, about 70% took place along these corridors.
The city of Palo Alto does not have demographic data on the population that visits or works in the city. To account for the broader geographic area in which individuals who come to Palo Alto likely reside, the Weekly also compared stop data to the regional demographics of the nearest four counties combined: Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Francisco and Alameda. Even when these regional demographics are considered, the data shows that the share of stops involving Black people is higher than their percentage of population in the four counties combined. Black people make up 5% of the population across the four counties, but 11% of stops in Palo Alto. Hispanic individuals make up 23% of the population in the four counties but constitute 30% of the persons stopped in Palo Alto.
While the limitations of comparing stop data to the demographics of the community's residential population are widely acknowledged, the RIPA Board also noted in its 2022 report that disparities "can be caused by several factors which include, but are not limited to, potential differences in offending rates and officer bias."
Disparities can also be rooted in the fact that the data is self-reported by the officers.
Binder in a recent interview declined to discuss the RIPA data, which he said represents only a "snapshot" in time. The department plans to collect a year's worth of data before analyzing and publicizing it, he said.
"While I won't comment on any specific situation, I do as a chief of police want our residents to feel safe, I want them to have positive interactions with law enforcement and I don't want them to feel like they were pulled over because of the color of their skin or other perceived characteristics. I want those contacts to be professional and equitable."
DIFFERENCES IN DURATION: How long a person is detained varies by race
In addition to disparities in police stops by race, the RIPA data also indicates that individuals of different races have different experiences once they are stopped by local police.
The Weekly's analysis of the Palo Alto interactions showed, for example, that individuals perceived as Black were stopped for an average of 27.36 minutes while those perceived as Hispanic were stopped for an average of 23.2 minutes. Those perceived to be white or Asian were stopped for an average of 20.1 and 20.9 minutes, respectively.
In 19.1% of the stops involving a Black individual, the person was handcuffed or flex-cuffed. For white, Hispanic and Asian individuals, the cuffing rates were 8.6%, 10.4% and 11.9%, respectively. The data also showed that Black individuals are arrested or placed under a psychiatric hold more frequently (20% of stops) than white, Hispanic and Asian persons (12.7%, 12.5% and 15.5%, respectively).
What's driving these disparities in the lengths of stops? Some of the stops involved mental health crises or arrests, which can take longer. When those are taken out of the calculations, the gap between racial categories diminishes — but it doesn't disappear. Hispanic and Black individuals continue to experience longer stops than whites and Asians. Stops of Hispanic individuals that don't involve psychiatric holds or arrests take 13.7 minutes on average, according to RIPA data, while stops involving Black individuals take an average of 10.9 minutes. For white and Asian individuals, the duration is 10.3 minutes and 6.3 minutes, respectively.
Once stopped, Black individuals were also more likely to get searched, the Palo Alto data shows. Of the 110 stops of individuals perceived as Black, officers reported 25 in which the person stopped was searched, a 22.7% rate. Over the same period, Palo Alto officers conducted searches on 13.1% of individuals perceived as Asian; 11.8% of the individuals perceived as white; and 9% of the individuals they perceived as Hispanic.
The local data largely mirrors state data from the largest police agencies, which showed a 20.5% search rate for Black individuals and an 8.2% search rate for white individuals.
Reasons for the searches varied, as did the results of those searches. In seven stops of Black individuals, the search was conducted as the person was being detained for a mental health evaluation or transported to the hospital for treatment. In six other cases, officers found contraband and either arrested the individual or issued an in-field citation. While drugs and drug paraphernalia were the most common contraband, having been found in four of these eight cases, the most significant seizure occurred during a January incident in which suspects in an auto burglary were stopped on the 900 block of San Antonio Road and officers discovered what the log describes as "tons of stolen electronics" in the car.
REASONABLE SUSPICION: When officers believe a crime is being committed
Why were people stopped in the first place and what does the data represent?
In Palo Alto, much like across the state, the vast majority of stops reported by police officers were classified as traffic violations, according to RIPA data. The most recent RIPA Board report, which examined statewide data from 2020, showed 86.1% of all stops attributed to traffic violations. In Palo Alto, traffic violations were the reason for 74.5% of all stops.
As with other aspects of police stops, traffic-violation data also reveals racial disparities. In incidents involving individuals perceived as Asian, traffic violations accounted for 83.3% of Palo Alto police stops. For those perceived to be Hispanic, the proportion was 76.8%, while for those perceived to be white it was 68.3%.
For individuals perceived as Black, the percentage of stops chalked up to traffic violations was just 60%. Similarly, at the state level, the lowest proportion of traffic-violation stops among the four races were of Black individuals (77.9%), according to the RIPA Board report.
Black persons more than other racial groups, on the other hand, were more likely to be stopped for several other reasons: "reasonable suspicion" — a circumstance in which an officer suspects that an individual either was engaged in criminal activities — an outstanding warrant; or because the officer initiated a "consensual" encounter.
Police officers have relatively broad discretion when it comes to reasonable suspicion. Legally, they are required to point to "specific articulable facts that would lead a reasonable person to believe that a crime is, was, or is about to occur," according to RIPA Board's 2021 report.
"Reasonable suspicion requires more than just an officer having a hunch that the person committed a crime but is a lesser standard than probable cause, which is required to arrest someone," the report states.
Statewide data indicates that Black individuals were more likely to be stopped under this pretext whether or not the encounter ultimately led to any enforcement.
The Palo Alto data reveals that local officers base a higher proportion of their stops on reasonable suspicion than is typical for agencies across the state.Unlike at the state level, however, Palo Alto's disparity between Black and white individuals stopped for reasonable suspicion is not large. In Palo Alto, 20.9% of stops that involved Black individuals were based on reasonable suspicion. The rate was 20.4% for white, 18.7% for Hispanic and 14.3% for Asian individuals. (The Weekly's analysis excludes stops of individuals who were classified in more than one racial category, which made up about 6% of the total stops in the RIPA data. It also does not include stops of individuals who were classified in the Middle Eastern or South Asian category, which made up 5.9% of the all stops, and stops involving individuals classified as Pacific Islander, which made up 2.5% of all stops. The numbers of individuals in these categories are low, and the three months' worth of stop data could therefore be a less reliable indicator of policing practices.)
When arrests and citations are factored into the analysis of Palo Alto's "reasonable suspicion" stops, the data shows that Asian individuals, while stopped less frequently, were arrested at the highest rate. Asian individuals were only stopped based on reasonable suspicion 12 times in the three months. In eight of these cases, or 66% of the total, the stop led to an arrest.
About 43% of the "reasonable suspicion" stops (23 stops) involving Black individuals led to either custodial arrest (in six cases) or an in-field citation and release (four cases).
For white individuals, the figure was 38%, with 12 in-field citations and 14 custodial arrests. Similarly, 41% of the "reasonable suspicion" stops involving Hispanic individuals involved either custodial arrests (15 cases) or in-field citations followed by release (seven cases).
Reasons for reasonable suspicion vary greatly. In some cases, the Palo Alto data makes it clear why the officer became suspicious. There was, for example, an incident in early March in which an individual received a citation after he was observed twirling a large knife near City Hall, a weapon that was subsequently found in the pocket of his cargo pants. In another case, officers reported that a Black woman whom they had stopped near Stanford Shopping Center in late February was a suspect because the car she was in was involved in a burglary, according to the RIPA data.
In other cases, the reasonable suspicion is based on milder offenses: urinating in a public garage, smoking in a public park or sleeping in a vehicle in the parking lot of the post office on East Bayshore Road with a beer can nearby.
The Public Policy Institute report considers factors aside from bias that may contribute to the racial disparities in police stops. For example, is the person being stopped on parole or probation? Do they have a weapon? Did an officer report seeing contraband? The report notes, for example, that individuals on parole or probation and with outstanding warrants have significantly higher search rates and that there are more Black than white people stopped for being on correctional supervision or having an outstanding warrant. Could this factor, rather than police bias, contribute to the disparity? The Public Policy Institute report notes that while an individual's parole or probation status is a relevant factor to adjust for, since officers have additional latitude in those cases, "the status itself is influenced by myriad biases in the criminal justice system."
"It's important to consider the reasons for the stops, whether it's a call for service, whether an individual was armed, whether or not police observed a crime or had a warrant," Premkumar said in an interview. "You can imagine that directly makes the change to the interaction. It maybe makes it more adversarial and it may be more justifiable to use force than in a traffic stop. There are all relevant things to keep in mind."
To adjust for these factors, Premkumar's team used regression models to control for factors like context, location and law enforcement agencies. They also adjusted the model for factors like the probation and parole status of the person stopped and for geographic factors. (For example, do more Black residents live in cities where police conduct searches more often across all racial groups?) The think tank found that the black-white gap dropped from 12.4 percentage points to 4.1 percentage points.
"And while this suggests that these factors matter, we also find that Black people are still 1.5 times more likely to be searched during a stop than white people," the report states.
The Public Policy Institute report also acknowledges the limitations of its analysis, given that it is relying on information that is self-reported by the very police officers whose stops are being analyzed. As such, its analysis "might also underestimate the prevalence of police bias if the factors that we control for, such as the reported reason for the stop, themselves represent police bias."
"One example may be the higher likelihood of Black individuals being stopped for reasonable suspicion than white individuals," the report states.
The Palo Alto data also detailed that Black people had a higher likelihood of being stopped by police for reasons that were neither traffic violations nor reasonable suspicion:
In 21 stops involving Black individuals, there were eight based on outstanding warrants or the person being wanted, nine that were classified as "consensual encounters and search" (five of these involved individuals who were placed on psychiatric holds), and three involving parole or probation supervision.
Altogether, these types of miscellaneous stops made up 19.1% of all Palo Alto stops involving Black individuals. For white, Hispanic and Asian individuals, the rates were 10.9%, 4.5% and 2.4%, respectively.
The Palo Alto data also shows that Black people were more likely to be stopped based on "consensual encounters involving search." Between Jan. 1 and April 11, there were nine incidents in which Black individuals were involved in such stops. White individuals, who were involved in roughly three times as many stops overall, had 12 that were based on consensual encounters. There were six such stops involving Hispanic individuals and two involving Asian individuals.
The most recent RIPA Board report highlighted the racial disparities in consensual encounters across the state and questioned whether officers should engage in the practice, particularly given the low discovery rates that these types of stops involve when compared to searches based on reasonable suspicion or probable cause.
"While the data reflect that most people consent to a search when asked by an officer, research discussed in the report reflects that this 'consent' is not necessarily voluntarily because of the inherent power inequality between a law enforcement officer and a member of the public," the RIPA Board's 2022 report states.
CALLS FOR SERVICE: The phenomenon of 'bias by proxy'
Even when police officers do not initiate a stop — instead responding to a 911 call or to requests from a dispatcher or colleague, known as a "call for service" — disparities by race creep into the law-enforcement process, the RIPA data indicates. Calls for service made up about 5.9% of all police calls among the agencies that submitted their data to the state Department of Justice in 2020, according to the 2022 RIPA Board report.
In Palo Alto, however, the rate appears to be higher. Of the 962 stops reported between Jan. 1 and April 11, 152 were reportedly in response to a call for service, a rate of 15.8%.
Premkumar noted that stops based on calls for service are often ones that are most urgent and in which officers have least discretion.
"They're least likely to reflect cases of racial bias because they're reacting very quickly to a call someone in the neighborhood or the vicinity has made," he said.
But even if these stops aren't officer-initiated, individuals perceived as Black were getting stopped at a higher rate than those of other racial categories. Of the 110 stops in Palo Alto that involved individuals perceived as Black, 28 were in response to calls for service, a rate of 25.5%. For calls that involved individuals perceived as white or Asian individuals, the rates were 18.6% and 16.7%, respectively. For those perceived as Hispanic, it was 13.1%.
A similar trend can be seen across California, albeit on a smaller scale. The most recent RIPA Board report shows that stops of individuals perceived as Black were more likely than those involving other racial categories to be based on calls for service. Of the stops of individuals perceived as Black, the rate was 9.7%. Of those perceived as white or Asian, just 5.8% and 3.2% were based on calls for service, respectively.
Board analysis concluded that "the largest disparity of overrepresentation between the proportion of stops and the proportion of residential population was for Black individuals; Black individuals were stopped 211.8% more frequently than expected." The largest disparity for underrepresentation in calls for services, the RIPA Board found, was for individuals perceived to be Asian followed by individuals perceived to be multiracial. According to the report, Asian individuals were stopped 80.7% less frequently while multiracial individuals were stopped 78.8% less frequently.
In its 2021 report, the RIPA Board zeroed in on the reasons for the racial disparity among calls for services and identified "bias by proxy" — an instance in which a person calls the police to make false claims about someone they dislike or are biased against — as one of the potential causes. As a remedy, the RIPA Board recommended expanded training for police dispatchers so that they can recognize bias by proxy, be prepared to diffuse or deescalate the situation and mitigate the bias when transferring a call to the first responder.
"Although there are all too many reports of Amy Coopers in this world, dispatchers should also be mindful of the potential for implicit bias in the reports of seemingly well-intentioned callers," the report states, referring to the woman who earned infamy for calling the police on birdwatcher Chris Cooper in Central Park. "Dispatchers, as well as law enforcement, need further mandatory training on how to address both implicit and explicit bias when addressing 911 callers, as well as how to identify bias within themselves."
Jennifer Eberhardt, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and former member of the RIPA Board, recommended "adding friction" to deal with bias by proxy. Eberhardt, whose book, "Biased," explores the effects of bias in areas such as criminal justice, housing and education, urges an approach in which the responder slows down the caller and asks them specific questions about what the person was doing to make them suspicious (and, if needed, informing them that the category "Black man" is not grounds for suspicion). Eberhardt's team of researchers had also worked with the social media company Nextdoor to educate people about racial profiling and to create a checklist with specific information about the "suspicious" person's actions and features. The RIPA report states that the strategy was so successful that Nextdoor was able to curb racial profiling by 75%.
"Trainings for both law enforcement and dispatchers should consider implementing this approach or working on developing something similar," the report states. "The simple act of adding friction is an invaluable tool that research shows reduces profiling."
THE IMPACT OF DISPARATE TREATMENT: Local residents speak out
LaDoris Cordell, a retired Santa Clara County Superior Court judge who had served as a police auditor in San Jose, said she was troubled by some of the RIPA data coming out of Palo Alto, which the Weekly shared with her. This includes the large number of police stops involving Black individuals that involved searches and the high rate of stops reportedly based on "reasonable suspicion."
A former Palo Alto council member, Cordell had previously described to the Weekly her own encounters with local police, including an incident in the mid-1970s when she and two companions were forced to stand against the wall of a grocery store at gunpoint by multiple police officers while their car was searched, ostensibly because three Black men had robbed a Baskin-Robbins.
Cordell said in a recent interview she often hears stories about Black men who are stopped and questioned for no reason and recalled one recent case in which a young Black male who works in a downtown store was approached by an officer and questioned while walking to his car after work. Though he did nothing wrong, the encounter left him feeling "devastated," she said.
"I think it's appropriate to conclude that there is a problem with racial profiling in Palo Alto, and I am very concerned because the data is very disturbing to me. And I'm calling upon the new police chief to look at this data seriously and understand what it means," Cordell said.
Other residents have testified to similar mistreatment.
Teresa Brown spoke at a meeting in summer 2020, when the city's Human Relations Commission hosted a series of meetings in which local residents testified about the discrimination they had suffered over the years at the hands of local police officers.
Brown's family has lived in Palo Alto for nearly 100 years but still gets treated like "invaders who don't belong," she said. She recalled watching police pull over her Black father for no reason and ask whether he was on parole.
"These types of incidents became the status quo to myself, my family and my friends," Brown told the commission. "We have been unfairly questioned as to where we are going, who we are going to see, all without being given a reason why we were pulled over. When reasons are provided, the consist of, 'You fit the description,' or 'The light is out on your license plate.'"
Palo Alto resident Michael Harrison recalled in an interview incidents in which his sons, Michael and Jamal, were stopped by the police for various dubious reasons. There was the time when Michael was stopped for driving a car that the officer didn't think he owned. Another time when Jamal was stopped at Stanford while he was out with friends and was told to lie on the ground while an officer searched him.
"Things like that have happened continuously," said Harrison, 72.
Kenan Moos, who helped organize demonstrations in and around Palo Alto after Floyd's killing in 2020, said in an interview he has experienced racial profiling of this sort in Palo Alto, Mountain View and in his hometown of Los Altos. At a 2020 meeting of the Palo Alto Human Relations Commission, he took part in a panel on police reform. During the discussion, Moos said he had been pulled over more than 20 times in these cities for seemingly no reason.
And those are only the times when he was actually pulled over; he and others have spoken of the numerous other times when they have been followed by police cruisers across the city border. They believe it was because of their race.
Moos recalled in an interview an incident in which he parked in the City Hall garage while visiting downtown Palo Alto and then had police cars follow him out of the garage and trail him through the city.
"There's countless times that I've been followed up to the border of Los Altos, when I'm passing on El Camino Real," Moos said.
His experiences are not unique. Michael Harrison, the son, told the Weekly that he's also had police officers follow him for no clear reason. Harrison, 48, who grew up in Palo Alto but who now lives in Union City, has been engaged in the city's efforts to promote greater social equity in the aftermath of Floyd's killing. He attended the June 19, 2020, event in front of Palo Alto City Hall and participated in the "100 Conversations" initiative that the council launched that year, in which small groups of residents talked about race. He said he was not surprised by the stop data showing racial disparities.
"I've had cops pull U-turns and follow me home at intersections in Palo Alto," Harrison said in an interview when asked why he remains engaged in the city's efforts to improve racial equity. "That's why I care."
Harrison, who has recently discussed his concerns with Binder, said he wants to see "more honest communications and interactions within the community, particularly people of color, not just white folks."
"Unless we're communicating and unless there's accountability, it's going to be hard to change. Right now, things are so polarized and we've got to move beyond the polarization and really start to have a transparent conversation," Harrison said.
Acting Capt. James Reifschneider, who heads the Palo Alto department's patrol division and who has been involved in revising department policies, said anecdotes like those shared at the recent community meetings are important for the police department to hear and understand.
"The fact they were historic doesn't make them irrelevant," Reifschneider said. "It means in my mind that when officers have contacts now, they just have to be aware of these past experiences that a resident may have had. And it makes it that much more important that the interaction they have now is a professional one so that they do see that there's been a change over time in the profession, in the city, etc."
Binder said that the department takes these concerns seriously. It offers mandatory training for officers on fair and impartial policing, he said, and he said he believes bias needs to be a part of the conversation in the department.
"I will say too, I have to acknowledge that bias-based policing does exist in the profession. We can't say it doesn't because we have humans there," he said.
CAN LAW ENFORCEMENT ELIMINATE BIASED PRACTICES? Controversy surrounds implicit-bias training
The idea that it's impossible to eliminate bias is consistent with the teachings of experts on the subject.
Eberhardt recalls in "Biases" her experiences with the Oakland Police Department, where 83% of the crime in 2014 was attributed to Black individuals and where the message "male black" serves as "inescapable background track" on police radios. On a typical day, Eberhardt wrote, "an officer on patrol might hear that dispatched description three hundred times — or twelve hundred times a week, fifty thousand times each year."
This forces officers as they patrol the streets to constantly pair blackness with criminal activity, she wrote.
"That repetitive pairing can easily lead to an association of blackness with crime that becomes automatic, expected, routine," she said.
Palo Alto officers are not immune to this association. Sandra Brown, who spent 24 years in the Palo Alto Police Department before retiring as lieutenant in 2011, spoke at length at a 2020 meeting of the RIPA Board about the biases she herself experienced as an officer. A former member of the RIPA Board who now trains law enforcement agencies on recognizing and managing their biases, Brown argued at a November 2020 board meeting that when it comes to designing training material for officers, it's important to acknowledge that biases can reflect officers' experiences in the field.
"I, as a Black female that worked for 30-plus years in law enforcement, I might very well have a bias based on the arrests that I made, the communities I worked in, what I hear on our radios ... what I hear on the news, what I see when I get home," Brown said.
"And over 30 years it can create a bias for me. So I have a bias that I have to work on every day of street crimes, meaning drug sales, prostitution, assault, battery, robberies whether strong arm or with a weapon," she said.
"I have a bias that goes against African-American males between the ages of 18 and 24. That bias doesn't go into African-American males between the ages of 79 and 85. It falls into that group, which is an unfortunate description of street crime suspects in a lower socioeconomic (environment), which creates a bias. It's embarrassing for me to say that. I understand that I have to manage that and I work very hard on doing that, even though I'm not in law enforcement anymore," Brown said.
Bias training has been a staple in Palo Alto Police Department since at least 2008, when the city's police chief, Lynne Johnson, resigned under pressure after making comments that many interpreted as an endorsement of racial profiling. Describing her response to a spate of downtown robberies, Johnson said during a public meeting that she has directed officers to make "consensual contact" with Black men who wear do-rags as part of the department's strategy. The firestorm from her comments spurred her successor, Dennis Burns, to institute bias training for Palo Alto officers with criminology expert Lorie Fridell, a leading expert on racial profiling who now heads the firm Fair and Impartial Policing, which specializes in training for police departments. Brown is among its trainers.
Palo Alto officers have all received some training in fair and impartial policing. Binder said that he took a trainer course on the topic, and the department offers the course on a regular basis.
"It's important and it does have to be a topic of conversation. We can't stick our heads in the sand and say it doesn't exist," Binder said.
The Commission of Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST), the organization that sets the training standards for police officers, now includes training on fair policing as part of its curriculum, Reifschneider said. Officers are required to take some courses every five years. In Palo Alto, police officers do it every three years, he said.
Not everyone, however, is convinced that training on implicit bias actually helps reduce racial disparities in police stops. The Council on Criminal Justice, an independent, nonpartisan think tank, last year released a policy assessment on implicit bias training and found little evidence of its effectiveness. Its Task Force on Policing suggested that the goals of implicit bias training might be better achieved through "de-escalation training and trainings that teach procedural justice principles, such as treating people neutrally and equitably."
Others have made a similar point. On Oct. 13, the Public Policy Institute of California held a panel discussion about its new report, which found that Black drivers made up more than a third of stops that involved intrusive actions such as detention, handcuffing or deployment of a weapon but led to no enforcement or discovery of contraband.
Similarly, Palo Alto officers used intrusive actions with Black individuals at a higher rate than persons of any other race, and yet found contraband the least often, according to the RIPA data. About a quarter of the total stops (243 out of 962) made in the first three months of 2022 involved intrusive actions.
For stops of Black individuals, the rate of intrusive actions was about 36.4%, while for white individuals it was 26.3%. For Asians, it was 25%, and for Hispanic individuals it was 25.3%.
The data shows that the police uncovered contraband in just six of the 40 stops that involved intrusive action toward Black individuals, or 15% — the lowest percentage of the four racial groups.
In stops involving white people, 89 involved intrusive actions such as detention, handcuffing or use of force. Of these, 16 stops (or 18.0% of the total) led to contraband being seized, with drugs and drug paraphernalia being the most common type. The data also shows intrusive actions in 73 stops involving Hispanic people, with 12 of these (16.4%) leading to contraband being seized. Of the 21 stops of Asian individuals that featured intrusive actions, police seized contraband during six — or 28.6% of the time — the highest share.
The Public Policy Institute analysis, which relied on 2019 data from California's 15 largest departments, also found that Black drivers made up as many as a third of traffic stops in the hours after midnight, roughly twice the share of white drivers.
In discussing ways to reduce racial disparities, the Public Policy Institute cites the Council on Criminal Justice's finding that more evaluative research is needed to determine whether implicit bias training is effective. It recommends considering other approaches such as diversifying police staff and sending officers of a particular race or ethnicity to calls in neighborhoods with residents who are predominantly of that same race or ethnicity as a "complementing approach."
San Leandro Police Chief Abdul Pridgen, who serves on the RIPA Board, said during the Oct. 13 forum that in his personal experience he has not seen implicit bias training demonstrably changing officers' behaviors.
"These trainings are eight hours, but these people are inundated with persuasive themes about people in the society when they're not at work," Pridgen said.
BROADER MOVES TO ENSURE FAIR POLICING: Palo Alto tries greater diversity, transparency
Whether or not it's actually possible to train away bias, Binder believes that the department's moves toward more transparency will help ensure fair policing and improve community relations. One of his first actions as chief was to remove encryption from police communications, reversing a controversial decision by his predecessor, Bob Jonsen. Binder's action was made as a gesture that officers have nothing to hide.
"Encryption is a perfect example where we felt as an organization it was an opportunity to rebuild trust in the community," he said.
He has also continued to refine the Police Department's policy manual. One recent change includes new rules for deploying specially trained police dogs, called K-9s. In January, the city approved a $135,000 settlement with Joel Alejo, a Mountain View resident who was sleeping in a backyard shed when a Palo Alto officer entered with a K-9 and directed the dog to repeatedly bite Alejo in what turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. A new policy requires officers to issue a "clearly audible warning" to announce that a K-9 will be released if the person doesn't surrender before any deployment. The manual also specifies that when a search involves entering multiple properties, a warning should precede each entry.
The department is also trying to diversify its staff, which lost its only Black officer in October 2021 with the retirement of Sgt. Adrienne Moore. Its recent recruits include two Black officers, both of whom were going through the police academy as of September, Binder said.
The City Council, meanwhile, is moving ahead with its own multi-pronged initiative on race and equity. Two years after the effort kicked off, city staff have completed 14 out of 17 assigned tasks — a menu that included expanding the role of mental health responders to police calls, creating a history of Black and brown communities and revising use-of-force policies in the Police Department.
Earlier this month, Deputy City Manager Chantal Gaines said that the only three projects that remain outstanding are those pertaining to negotiations the Palo Alto Peace Officers' Association, the city's largest police union; completion of a workforce demographic assessment; and analysis of stop data, which the city plans to conduct once a full year's worth of data is collected at the end of December.
In discussing plans for releasing the RIPA data, Acting Assistant Chief April Wagner told the council's Policy and Services Committee on Oct. 11 that once all the data is collected and submitted to the Department of Justice, the department will release it to the public along with key statistics.
Council member Alison Cormack, who serves on the committee, said she hopes the community takes "a learning approach" to the department's release of RIPA data.
"No one expects our first foray into this to be perfect," Cormack said. "I hope and expect the department is going to continue to be transparent with the data that's available."
WHAT THE FUTURE MAY HOLD FOR POLICING: Policies on mugshots, K-9s
But while these initiatives continue, the community conversation has shifted since 2020, with calls to defund the police giving way to arguments for more police staffing.
In addition to restoring some of the positions that were cut in 2020, the council placed on the ballot two revenue measures that they say would help improve public safety. Measure K, the city's proposed business tax, names public safety as one of three areas that would be funded through the tax (affordable housing and rail improvements are the other two). Measure L, which affirms the city's historic policy of transferring revenues from the gas utility to the general fund, lists police as one of the areas that the funds would support, even though the measure doesn't explicitly dedicate these revenues to public safety.
All seven candidates seeking seats on the City Council have voiced support for adding resources to the Police Department and were generally supportive of Binder's recent moves. When they were asked in the September forum what they would do to make sure police are operating in a fair and unbiased manner, most lauded the department's recent initiatives such as the launching of the PERT team and the decryption of radios.
Ed Lauing, a council candidate who named public safety one of his campaign priorities, responded to the question by saying he wants to see more diversity in the police force, both in gender and race.
"That is not an instant task, but the chief is committed to that, we know that," Lauing said.
Candidate Vicki Veenker said she supports requiring ongoing diversity training.
"I think it's very important for culturally competent policing, and that would also help avoid some of the biased and unfair practices that we've seen in the past," Veenker said.
Most other candidates focused their answers on the broader topic of crime in the community and said they support hiring more officers and continuing the initiatives that are already underway. Julie Lythcott-Haims went the furthest in advocating for reform and said she would support eliminating use of police K-9s and quadrupling investment in the PERT program so that clinical professionals could be on call 24/7 for calls involving mental health crises.
"As an African-American candidate I can't help but think about this on a regular basis. It's not policies; it's not politics. It's personal," Lythcott-Haims said.
Binder's appetite for reform has its limits; he's taking a wait-and-see approach while other law enforcement agencies are changing their practices. In discussing ways to address bias by proxy, the RIPA Board encouraged agencies to take steps to remove "structural practices that contribute to misconceptions about race and identity" in the broader society. One example is ending the practice of posting mugshots of arrested individuals. The San Francisco Police Department stopped releasing mug shots for most suspects in July 2020. In announcing the policy change, Police Chief Bill Scott characterized it as a way to curb racial stereotyping.
"You see Black and Brown men all the time — you see these mug shots either on television, movies, you name it, the media source. The mind begins to associate that group with that type of activity," Scott told the Associated Press.
In Palo Alto, by contrast, the practice remains routine. Though the department stopped including mug shots in its social media posts to comply with a 2021 law known as AB 1475, it still distributes them to the media. (Embarcadero Media, the parent company of the Weekly, adopted a policy in 2018 of not publishing mugshots of a person in most circumstances.) Binder said the department has not had any discussions about revising its mugshot policies.
He is also not keen to shift the department's policy on pretext stops, which occur when an officer uses a minor infraction to investigate a hunch about an unrelated crime. Pretext stops have been a topic of persistent concern in recent RIPA Board reports and one that will also feature prominently in its 2023 report, according to a draft of the document that board members have been discussing in recent meetings. The 2022 RIPA Report recommended that "policymakers and law enforcement and municipal leaders to consider ways to eliminate pretextual stops and therefore reduce any potential for harm stemming from such stops."
On Sept. 30, the board's Policies Subcommittee discussed pretext stops with staff from the state Department of Justice and issued three recommendations: limiting discretionary stops that officers make that amount to pretext stops; considering a "probable cause" standard for the kinds of stops that lead to disparate impacts on particular communities in California; and prohibiting suspicionless stops such as consent searches and supervision inquiries.
"Our data shows a significant racial and identify disparity in the ways these stops are used," Andrea Guerrero, who chairs the subcommittee, told the full board at its Oct. 13 meeting. "They lead to profiling, trauma and harm. Because of this, there is national momentum to eliminate pretext stops."
Some cities are already moving ahead with such efforts. The Berkeley Police Department adopted policies earlier this year that encourage officers to focus on stops that directly impact public safety and lists specific categories of permitted stops, which include those dealing with speeding, running red lights, driving under the influence or distracted driving.
The Los Angeles Police Department also adopted a new policy that allows for traffic stops only if an officer believes a violation "significantly interferes with public safety" (though it leaves it to the officer to assess the risk). The new Los Angeles policy also requires an officer who conducts a pretext stop to document the reasons for doing so on their body-worn camera and to state the information that was used to initiate the stop.
San Francisco is also trying to minimize pretext stops. Earlier this month, the city's Police Commission issued a draft order significantly curtailing pretext stops, which the document claims are "disproportionately carried out against people of color and provide no demonstrable public safety benefit." The only exceptions to the ban on pretext stops would be to lawfully detain a driver who has committed a felony, a misdemeanor or a serious infraction (which explicitly excludes things like failure to display a license plate, or driving with tinted windows); to stop drivers of commercial vehicles; or to stop a person or vehicle that matches a description of a suspect or a suspect vehicle that was involved a serious felony such as murder, kidnapping and forcible sex offense, among others.
In Palo Alto, stops for minor violations such as tinted windows, improperly mounted license plates or expired registration remain fairly common. The Weekly's analysis of the RIPA data showed that roughly 40% of the stops of Hispanic individuals and about a third of the stops of Black individuals involved such violations, compared to about a quarter of the stops that involved white individuals and about 15% of those involving Asian individuals.
Binder acknowledged that people have "strong opinions" about pretext stops but said he wants to see other jurisdictions' effectiveness with this reform before deciding whether to implement it here.
"I really need to see the data before we make any decision on where to go," Binder said.
Binder also said he does not support abolishing the K-9 program. Across the nation, opponents of police K-9s have charged that the dogs are used disproportionately against minorities.
Binder called the department's K-9 unit an important tool for both protecting police officers and for giving an officer another tool for dealing with a situation in which they are confronting someone with a pipe, a bat, a knife or another deadly weapon. In such cases, a K-9 could be a good alternative to a firearm, he said. When asked about the Alejo case, Binder stressed the importance of learning from past mistakes and revising the policies accordingly.
"We bit an innocent guy in a family backyard and he shouldn't have been bitten," Binder said. "With that though, I think consistently with our track record, we looked at 'How did this happen?' and 'What can we do to mitigate this from happening in the future?'"
When it comes to the department's stop data, Binder said he plans to share the information with the public, though it isn't exactly clear when and how the data will be publicly displayed. Binder and other department staff planned to attend a RIPA Summit on Nov. 1 organized by the California Police Chiefs Association that aims to help agencies prepare for the release of their data. Binder said that while he hasn't yet studied the local data on stops, he supports releasing it so that members of the community have more information about local police activities.
"Sometimes the information is great to share; sometimes it's going to cause people to question the police department and it's not going to look favorable for us. But I feel getting that information out there and prompting those discussions is, overall, a good thing for the long-term health and wealth of the police department and its relationship with the community," Binder said.
This story contains 8560 words.
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