Last week our police chief resigned in a flurry of controversy and media disapproval - after she stated at a community meeting that she had directed her officers to stop African American men in a "congenial" and "consensual" way to find out what they were doing in Palo Alto. The meeting had been called because of citizen concerns in the wake of 19 recent assaults and robberies - most of which had been perpetrated by African American men. Only about 3% of Palo Alto's population is Black. Needless to say, this blatant directive for racial profiling did not sit well for African American men who live here, or the many African American men who work in town. Nor for the many African Americans in neighboring East Palo Alto who come here to shop. There's not a single large grocery store in East Palo Alto, and Palo Alto is the destination for a lot of hard-earned dollars by minority neighbors.
Civic leaders in East Palo Alto organized a march to the Palo Alto City Hall and also spoke out at a Palo Alto city council meeting and a Human Relations commission meeting. Many recounted frivolous traffic stops by Palo Alto police over the years and many said they try to stay out of Palo Alto to avoid problems. The Palo Alto officials were extremely apologetic for the wayward remarks and policy, expressing a zero tolerance for racial profiling. All parties expressed the need to keep a dialogue going.
It's not easy to find concrete guidelines for police practices that avoid racial profiling, though they are desperately needed. The Palo Alto city manager needs to to hire a new chief who is fluent in methods that eliminate or greatly limit profiling, but do such chiefs exist? If you are familiar with any leaders and practices in this area, it would be great to hear from you.
How can police avoid it? The police are expected to keep residents feeling safe and when a crime wave hits they are under greater pressure to be proactive. When most of the suspects are Black, in a largely White and Asian community, it's easy to see how cops might multiply their traffic stops of minority persons in the hopes of turning away or maybe even catching the few criminals they are after. The cops are like industrial fishing outfits that cast a large net even if they end up throwing away many of the fish they capture. Only, in this case the practice leaves a trail of humiliation, resentment and inequity for a lot of innocent people.
It's similar to the way police will park outside of bars at closing time and stop drivers who emerge from the parking lot with a faulty taillight or an expired tag in the hope of netting a drunk driver before they hit the road. They are playing the odds; using their powers strategically. But these are not the rules of the game we want them to play by. These are Orwellian rules that make many law abiding folks feel that Big Brother is watching them.
Recognizing and talking regularly (not just at an annual diversity workshop) about our prejudices and biases is a valuable start for any police force (and community). Keeping stats of every traffic stop and who was in the car is also good as a starter. But without training in clear-cut procedures and practices that are alternatives to profiling, those statistics and dialogues don't change much. Palo Alto instituted the statistics-gathering a few years back after the"Driving while Black or Brown" movement made a convincing case for them. The stats became a hard-to-interpret footnote of quarterly Human Relations Commission meetings and no actions followed those reports. In fact, the Chief had successfully lobbied for fewer reports and fewer stats to collect.
The City Manager has proposed a $20,000 contract to a police auditor firm to review our department's practices and suggest better ones where appropriate. At $200 an hour, that will buy a week of evaluation of Palo Alto practices, study of alternative practices, and a report. Hopefully those alternative practices are more prevalent and easy to find than I imagine them to be.