Publication Date: Wednesday Mar 1, 2000
POLICE: Police praised for stand on profilingNew policy called an important first step
by Jennifer Kavanaugh
Palo Alto officials and community leaders are praising the Police Department's decision to record more information about police stops, saying it's a first step in determining whether the city's officers stop citizens because of race or ethnicity. Beginning in July, Palo Alto police officers will record the race, gender and age of all people stopped and give the reason for the stops. The department will collect the racial data, increase its diversity training for employees and step up public outreach in an attempt to combat the illegal practice of "racial profiling"--stopping citizens solely on the basis of race and color.
The Palo Alto Police Department is the latest agency in the area to agree to data collection, a list that includes San Jose, San Francisco and the California Highway Patrol. People who say that racial profiling isn't a problem in Palo Alto insist the data collection will simply reinforce public confidence in the department. Others commend the department for not only collecting the data, but also trying to prevent such stops from occurring.
"It's not just statistics," said Wynn Hauser, chairman of the city's Human Relations Commission. "You have to take the report as a whole in terms of its educational component, keeping the issue in the minds of officers and increasing communication between the police and the public."
In his report announcing the new policy, Police Chief Pat Dwyer wrote the department will make its findings public four times a year. At this point, it's unclear how the data will be interpreted or what training the officers will receive in addition to the regular diversity training they already receive. Dwyer did not return phone calls for this story.
The controversial issue of racial profiling has gotten increasing attention in recent years, as police agencies nationwide face more questions about how they conduct stops. The Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union started a hotline for minorities who feel they might have been stopped unfairly--and received thousands of calls.
The issue of racial profiling is difficult not only because it involves the sensitive issue of race, but because it's a difficult problem to document. Civil rights leaders say that people who feel abused by the police aren't likely to go back and complain to the police. When they do, according to activists, the situation quickly turns into a he said-they said scenario. Proponents of data collection agree that statistics won't shed light on individual cases, but might give an overall picture of a department's activities.
But statistics often fuel more debate. In December, the city of San Jose released its data on police stops, finding that 43 percent of the stops involved Latinos, while Latino residents make up only 31 percent of San Jose's population. Some community members said that discrepancy could be evidence of race-biased stops, while others said that different factors, such as location and purpose of the stops, could skew those numbers.
Palo Alto City Manager June Fleming, who asked Dwyer to devise the police, emphasized the training aspects of the plan and downplayed the data collection.
"Statistics can be manipulated to reflect whatever people want them to reflect," Fleming said. "It's a piece of the puzzle, but it's not the whole picture."
In recent years, Palo Alto's Police Department and local civil rights groups say they've received few complaints of racial profiling by officers. But the perception that officers do base stops on race is strong among some segments of the community, said Ken Russell, chair of the local ACLU chapter.
"There's still a lingering perception of the Police Department in Palo Alto that police are unfair to people of color," said Russell, who added that he'd like the city assemble an independent, civilian board to review complaints about the police.
Members of the Police Department said they haven't seen evidence of racial profiling in the department, but say they support the plan if it helps restore the confidence among different groups. According to Capt. Tom Merson, who heads the department's patrol division, the image of police departments everywhere suffers when scandals erupt, such as the stories of widespread police corruption in Los Angeles.
"In many respects, we're paying for the sins of other agencies," Merson said. "But it's necessary that we maintain the credibility of the department."
The data collection will mean more work for the department, Merson said, because officers will have to provide information on stops that weren't previously recorded, stops that end with a warning and no citation or arrest. Merson said the new system may make some officers nervous and feel that their judgment is being put under a microscope.
"There's a certain scrutiny there, and officers might be afraid that someone's going to misinterpret their actions," Merson said.
Officers have to make tough calls following robberies and violent crimes, Merson said. Upset victims often give vague or incorrect information about suspects, Merson said, and that often leads to police stops of people who are innocent but somehow fit the description--and may lead people of color to think that they're unfairly targeted.
Supporters of the department's plan say the diversity training and public outreach will discourage officers from making bad calls and clear up situations where a misunderstanding could exist.
"Prevention is better than detection in my mind," said HRC member Andrew Pierce. "If they have a system to keep that from happening, that's the way they should do it."
Yvette LaFleur, an African-American resident of south Palo Alto, said she was unfairly stopped several years ago on suspicion of being a bank robber, and that her family and friends have had similar experiences with the Palo Alto police. A social worker for the county of San Mateo, LaFleur said she supports increased diversity training but said the department needs training that puts them in the place of an African-American citizen.
"I think they need a deeper kind of training, not this kind of surface thing," LaFleur said. "One that goes deep and gets at their feelings about race."
Palo Alto police Lt. Brad Zook, who handles personnel training for the department, said police employees already have mandatory diversity training once a year and the department holds meetings whenever an issue comes up. Zook said the training ranges from Spanish lessons for employees to meetings with representatives of growing ethnic groups in Palo Alto.
"We don't just open up the cultural book," Zook said. "We try to get different groups involved in the discussion."
LaFleur, who said she attends public forums on police issues and works hard to have a better image of the police, said the overall plan has increased her confidence "big time" in the police.
"It's just unfortunate that they haven't done this before," LaFleur said. "But they're starting, and that's good."