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April 14, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Race relations between police, community tense Race relations between police, community tense (April 14, 2004)

New hotline and cameras in police cars meant to pressure

by Bill D'Agostino

The Palo Alto Police Department is starting new programs to ease strained relations with the local African-American community, but some vocal critics say it's not enough.

"We need to start asking some really hard questions about our police department," criminal defense lawyer Aram James told the city's Human Relations Commission last week.

The new programs and James' comments come as the department is undergoing increasing scrutiny about its interactions with minorities.

Three officers have recently been accused of discriminating against African Americans in two separate incidents, including one that allegedly left a 60-year-old man with a shattered knee and cost the city $250,000.

Local African American leaders and police watchdogs said those incidents are just the tip of the iceberg, and are asking for accountability from the city.

Janet Wells, a former president of the Mid-peninsula NAACP, said it shouldn't be surprising that racism exists, even in Palo Alto.

"It's just a part of the culture we have," Wells said. "People pretend it doesn't exist (but) it's a part of the American fabric."

At the Human Relations Commission's Thursday meeting, Police Chief Lynne Johnson, who is white, announced two new developments she hoped would help: A telephone hotline and the installation of video cameras in the squad cars.

Both will provide insights into the interactions between officers and the public. The telephone hotline will allow people to report complaints about the department anonymously. Those grievances will be reported to the City Council bi-annually. The new video cameras will record any contact between police officers and the public.

Both programs will begin in the coming weeks and months. .

The chief's goal is for "people of color to, for the most part, not feel that they are treated differently by police officers in Palo Alto." She also hopes that the community will be open minded about a police officers guilt in a case.

Local African American leaders gave mixed reviews of the new steps. The hotline could help, but people will still be fearful of retaliation, Wells said.

Two Palo Alto officers were charged last year for allegedly beating a 60-year-old African-American man, Albert Hopkins, in his car on July 13, 2003.

The city recently paid $250,000 to Hopkins. The officers, Michael Kan and Craig Lee, who pled not guilty, are scheduled to appear in court again Monday, April 19. The two are on paid leave, pending the result of a months-long internal investigation.

A third officer is on restricted duty for allegedly bullying a 14-year-old African American boy. The officer warned Jameel Douglas to wear a helmet while riding his skateboard near Terman Middle School.

The officer then shook Douglas "like a rag doll," according to James, the fiancÚ of Douglas' mother.

James, who is white, has undertaken a one-man campaign to get the district attorney and the city to press charges, interviewing witnesses and others. The district attorney is currently investigating the officer, but has not made a ruling. James has also criticized that probe, complaining that only white officers are investigating the police man.

According to the boy that James interviewed, the officer appears to have a history of singling out African Americans.

Eric Green Williams, an African American boy, was riding his bike to school when the officer warned him to wear his helmet. A white friend, riding nearby, was also not wearing his helmet, but the officer did not chastise him, Williams told James in a taped interview.

"I think it was unfair," Williams said. He later added: "I just think it was racial profiling, like he was only looking for a certain face." Andrew Pierce, Douglas' attorney and a member of the county's Human Relations, said he's "heard a disturbing number of reports that seem to be unwarrantedly harsh treatment of minorities" by the Palo Alto Police Department over the past years.

"I haven't seen any signs the situation's getting better or worse," Pierce said.

The police chief said it's tough to stay silent on these types of complaints, but she is legally obligated to remain quiet during internal investigations.

"I, in many cases, would love to be able to say these are the facts, this is why we made the decision we did," Johnson said.

The officer involved in the skateboarding incident has not been suspended, although he was placed on restricted leave for "his well-being" because of the stress he's under, Johnson said.

"It's not any reflection that I have on the officer's ability to do the job," she said.

Meanwhile, the department continues to monitor the racial make-up of all the people it stops, searches and arrests. It was one of the first departments in the state to do so, and is believed to collect more data than any other in the Bay Area.

The latest six-month report -- given to the commission last week -- required more than 100 hours of staff time to compile, according to Johnson.

"If my staff had their way," they would be recording less information, like other departments do, Johnson said.

"It's my decision at this point in time -- based on everything that has been going on with the police department and the community -- that now is not the time to change that," she said.

Down the road, that process might be altered, she added. But until then, "I take the wrath of the staff."

The most recent report shows that Palo Alto officers search African Americans and Latinos disproportionately, although many of those searches preclude or follow arrests.

One-third of the time African Americans were in contact with a Palo Alto police officer, they were searched. Latinos were searched 27 percent of the time. Whites were only searched 16 percent of the time, and Asians 10 percent of the time.

The data came from incidents from October 2003 through March 2004.

Of the 225 times African Americans were searched, more than 80 percent of those incidents related to an arrest. Of the 41 searches not related to an arrest, 25 of those people were on probation.

By contrast, 88 percent of the time whites were searched, the incident led to or followed an arrest.

The police chief said her officers are not supplying enough information to make a thorough analysis of the data. She will be demanding more complete information about each stop in the coming months.

In many cases, Johnson told the commission, "We honestly can't tell you why the searches were made."

Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at bdagostino@paweekly.com


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