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February 23, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Our Town: Top cop under fire Our Town: Top cop under fire (February 23, 2005)

by Don Kazak

John Abraham, a tall man who speaks carefully without raising his voice, stood at the microphone to address the Palo Alto Human Relations Commission Feb. 10.

But he really was talking to Police Chief Lynne Johnson, sitting at the table in the first-floor conference room at City Hall with members of the commission.

The topic was the Police Department and allegations of racial profiling, and the room was filled with angry people. Several members of Johnson's command staff huddled in a group near the doorway, watching.

"Are we supposed to feel good because you showed up for work tonight?" Abraham asked, looking straight at Johnson, who placidly looked back.

Liz Wills, a tall, African-American woman with short-cropped hair, told the commission she was stopped by officers six times in the first six months she lived in Palo Alto, in 1999. Her seeming offense was "driving while black."

Wills' voice rose with anger. She pointed at Johnson, then at the officers in the back of the room.

"You don't need to go to the Museum of Tolerance. You need to talk with me!" The force of her words froze the room in silence. Johnson earlier had said she planned to send members of the department to the museum in Los Angeles for its powerful message.

Johnson and her department are under fire for alleged racial profiling, the term for singling out minorities for special police attention. Critics hammered the department, both at the commission meeting and at a City Council meeting Feb. 7. More of the same is likely tonight when the commission and department host a community forum (Unitarian Universalist Church, 505 E. Charleston Road, 7 to 9 p.m.).

"I take these concerns about the Police Department very, very, very seriously," City Manager Frank Benest told the commission. He has proposed that it perform a police-review function. But several commission members are leery of the role, believing they aren't qualified.

Some people, meanwhile, want to have what they believe are bad police practices reined in. It doesn't help that two Palo Alto officers are scheduled to go to trial March 7 for allegedly beating a black man last year -- the first time criminal charges have been brought against Palo Alto officers for using excessive force.

"A few were convicted of other charges," Johnson said.

Johnson has been with the department 30 years, rising from patrol officer to captain and assistant chief before being named chief in 2003.

Is this a low point in the department's relations with the public? "That's hard to say," Johnson replied. "The same group of people is speaking out," she said of some longtime critics.

"Anyone who knows me knows what my values are," Johnson said. She was a board member of the now-defunct Palo Alto YWCA, which had a core mission of eliminating racism. And as a woman officer in an earlier time, she was subjected to harassment by some male officers.

"I believe everyone should be treated with dignity and respect," she says.

Johnson and her officers are taking their lumps in public quietly. But she does say that "I don't think the interests of the department are being heard right now."

But the public battering is affecting morale and performance, she said: "Members of the department are feeling very frustrated. "The level of self-initiated activity is going down" as officers become afraid of doing the wrong thing.

Johnson related the story of an officer who was -- briefly -- accused of racial profiling when he tried to talk to two African-American boys he saw on the street near Gunn High School Jan. 4 while he was investigating a report of a home burglary nearby. The two boys ran. The officer caught one, pushed him to the ground and handcuffed him near a classroom, leading to a complaint by a teacher.

But the kid was a burglar. "We cleared a lot of cases" with that arrest, Johnson said.

How does it feel to sit quietly while people publicly point at and criticize her? "It stinks," she said.

When I arrived at her office for an interview, we stood talking a moment before I moved to sit down -- on the wrong side of her desk.

"You don't want to sit in that chair," she said, laughing.

No, indeed.

Weekly Senior Staff Writer Don Kazak can be e-mailed at

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