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February 09, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Police review board approved Police review board approved (February 09, 2005)

During tense meeting, some council members also signal support for police

by Bill D'Agostino

During a tense discussion Monday night, the Palo Alto City Council took on the sensitive issue of police-race relations and agreed to form a new review board .

In recent months, the local police has faced increasing condemnation, especially from a few outspoken critics, for its handling of suspects of color. Two officers are facing felony charges of assault next month for allegedly beating black motorist Albert Hopkins in 2003.

The Human Relations Commission will become the new review body, as Councilwoman Hillary Freeman requested. It will review police procedures and give advice to the City Council.

During Monday's meeting, Councilwoman LaDoris Cordell defended Police Chief Lynne Johnson, saying she "does care that all who live and work in this city are treated fairly by her officers." But, she added, "there is a problem in Palo Alto; the data do not lie."

Referring to the department's own racial data, the former Superior Court judge noted that the percentage of blacks and Latinos stopped by officers is higher than the percentage of residents who are black and Latino.

Although she supported the review body, Cordell said she also wanted to take a "bolder step" by hiring an independent "police auditor." No council member expressed support for that idea.

Councilman Jack Morton opposed the new review committee, arguing that a few high-profile incidents were being blown out of proportion.

"Palo Alto is not Alabama in the '60s," said Morton, the only council member present to vote against the review board. (Councilwoman Dena Mossar was absent.) "There is not, I believe, a problem in this community about the way people are treated. There are people who are stopped, there are people who are minorities that are arrested; I have no doubt about it. Whether they represent a proportionate percentage of the residents in this community, I think is basically irrelevant."

During the meeting, five public speakers criticized the police, including two who traveled from other nearby cities. None were satisfied with the council's proposal.

Two members of the public defended the police, including Palo Alto resident Brian Wax, who argued that the number of complaints against police officers "is so miniscule, it doesn't merit another oversight committee."

The meeting's most heated moment occurred between public defender Aram James, the police's most fervent critic, and Mayor Jim Burch, who co-signed Freeman's memo requesting the review board. The exchange began when James -- who has accused an officer of roughing up his fiancÚ's black son, Jameel Douglas -- addressed the council and criticized City Manager Frank Benest's opposition to outside police oversight.

"You can let that man let this police department run amuck but the citizens..." James started to say when the mayor interrupted him, saying he couldn't allow James to attack the city manager.

"I'm sorry, you're going to let me finish," James said. "I let you talk."

"Well, I'm the chair," Burch retorted.

"I understand I have the right to free speech, sir," James said louder. The mayor again accused him of attacking the city manager.

"I'm not attacking anybody, I'm exercising free speech!" James shouted, before asking if he could have his three-minute time limit restarted. "You have two minutes and seven seconds," Burch told him.

"You can interrupt me but I can't interrupt you! ... I'm not attacking anybody," James said, his hands moving to his hips, "I'm talking about what's wrong with this city." "You can say what's wrong with this city, but you can't attack..."

"Oh I can't?" James asked. "That's correct," Burch said.

"No, sir. You're a citizen and the mayor and I'm a citizen ... Now can I start my talk again or are you going to interrupt me? You don't interrupt anybody else, sir!"

"Not when they behave civilly."

"Ah, now wait a minute, sir! Don't you dictate to me what is civil! You let that woman, the chief," James said, pointing at Johnson, "allow her police officers to beat up Albert Hopkins brutally! Jameel Douglas gets attacked! False confessions are extracted from citizens!"

The city manager then suggested taking a brief break. During the pause, council members and the city attorney surrounded Burch, all seemingly giving him advice. James sat down and complained to fellow police critics: "I didn't start that, he did."

When the meeting restarted, Burch allowed James to speak for the full three minutes. Suddenly calmer, James complained that the new review body would have "no teeth" since it would be made up of members of the city's "hapless" Human Relations Commission, instead of attorneys like himself.

The review board will not actually directly oversee the police, To create such an "oversight committee," the council would need to get voters to amend the City Charter, which gives the city manager the right to oversee the police department, City Attorney Gary Baum advised.

The exact role of the new body will be reviewed at a future council meeting. It will be an extension of what the Human Relations Commission has already been doing. Commissioners have been meeting quarterly with the police chief, reviewing the racial profiling statistics and other reports. On Thursday night, Jan. 10, they will again meet with the police chief as well as the city manager.

Council members admitted the review body could not completely bridge the gap between police officers and the minority community. But they said it was necessary to address perceptions.

"I don't think there's anything we can do that will solve, in and of itself, the problem that exists in this city, this state, this country, this world today with people of color," Burch said. "There's too much hurt for way too long to think that anything we do is going to solve it. But what we can do is work at it, discuss it, talk about it, tell our stories and come up with ideas, plans and procedures that begin to address it."

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

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