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November 24, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Police to collect less demographic data Police to collect less demographic data (November 24, 2004)

Critics accuse department of 'sticking their heads in the sand'

by Bill D'Agostino

The Palo Alto Police Department shocked civic watchdogs last week by announcing plans to collect significantly less demographic data about who its officers encounter -- information used to monitor whether officers are engaging in racial profiling.

"I'm extremely disturbed by it," said Rick Callender, the president of San Jose/Silicon Valley NAACP, who accused the department's leaders of sticking their heads in the sand.

Police Chief Lynne Johnson said the information, handwritten by officers on small cards, was unreliable and an administrative burden. Plus, she wants to compare the analyzed data with other police departments, who, according to Johnson, typically gather significantly less details.

So, starting in January, Palo Alto officers will limit their collection just to data concerning drivers who are pulled over.

Since July 2000, Palo Alto's officers have gathered the race, age, residency and gender of all people they encounter, including the passengers in any vehicles stopped and all suspects interviewed or arrested. They also list the reason and location for each encounter.

Recently, officers have even begun writing additional details about suspects they search or cite.

"We're the only department I know that collects all this data," Johnson said.

Rather than being written on a card, the information will, starting in January, be collected through a computer program accessible in officers' patrol cars.

Richard Banks, a law professor at Stanford University, disputed Johnson's claim that most departments only collect data on traffic stops. He also said the trend nationally is for agencies to collect more data, not less.

"So Palo Alto is going in the opposite direction," he said.

Banks, who has written articles on data collection and racial profiling, noted it should be easy to separate the traffic-stop data to make comparisons with other agencies. But he understood why the police would want to limit the information to only traffic incidents, since it's difficult to know when to count other encounters.

"There's probably a lot more error and fuzziness to the pedestrian stops," he said.

Palo Alto's Human Relations Commission also was not alerted to the department's change beforehand, even though they have a subcommittee dedicated to overseeing the police department.

"I'm a little surprised and a little concerned, but want to hear more about the 'what' and the 'why,'" said commission Chair Jeffrey Blum, who meets regularly with the police chief.

In recent years, the city's data has been criticized for showing a disproportionate number of searches for blacks and Hispanics. The department released its latest quarterly report on Thursday, which contained similar trends.

The policy change comes as the department is battling to overcome a reputation for racial insensitivity. The chief started a number of new programs to that effect, including purchasing new video cameras for patrol cars and attending a racial profiling conference at Stanford.

Currently, two Asian-American officers are facing trial for the alleged beating of a black man, who was pulled from his car near El Camino Real.

"Yes we have a lot of officers that are good, but we have a few officers that are bad," Callender said. "We need to understand the officers that are tainting the bucket for everybody."

Councilwoman Hillary Freeman was also disappointed with the chief's decision.

"Less is not more, in this case," she said.
A version of this story appeared Thursday on

Staff Writer Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at

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