PA Police Chief will work for another month

November 24, 2008 10:19:45 PM PST
Palo Alto Police Chief Lynne Johnson will continue to work for another month before using up vacation and leave time until February when she will retire after 34 years with the department, Police Department spokesman Dan Ryan said.

Assistant Chief Dennis Burns will take the position of acting police chief from Dec. 19 until Feb. 3, when he will likely be appointed interim chief while the search process for a new chief is underway, Ryan said.

Johnson made the announcement of her retirement Thursday, three weeks after making comments construed by some as encouraging police to conduct racial profiling to catch culprits in a recent spate of robberies in which suspects have been described as African-American.

Johnson's comments have been described as supporting racial profiling and have resulted in uproar from residents, church leaders and Stanford University students.

In a public letter sent the day after the meeting, Johnson said, "Unfortunately my statements have been misconstrued, so that some members of the public believe officers will be stopping all African-American males in Palo Alto. That is definitely not the case."

She echoed the sentiments at a City Council meeting, during which she made a second public apology.

Despite Johnson's two public apologies, community groups and leaders, including East Palo Alto Mayor Patricia Foster, have called for the police chief's resignation and organized to show their disapproval of what they say is a pattern of racial profiling from the Police Department.

Johnson did not mention the controversy surrounding her statements when she announced her retirement Thursday.

Ryan said the Police Department is saddened by the circumstances surrounding Johnson's retirement.

"Overall, people are disappointed that she is being kind of settled with this reputation as she leaves," Ryan said. "I don't think its fair for her to be remembered simply for the awkward comment that she made and that that should be her whole legacy."

"The biggest disappointment for everybody here is to see (Johnson) being labeled as being a potential racists or having given the instructions that would be racist, and that is not the case," he added.

Ryan said the whole ordeal has been "very upsetting."

"Particularly for (Johnson) because she has worked these years and taken this job to do good things, and to have this overshadow her career is clearly upsetting," Ryan said.

Amongst Johnson's accomplishments during her more than five years as Chief of Police, Ryan cited many of the measures the chief has taken to improve transparency.

Utilizing Taser guns mounted with cameras, collecting demographic data, expanding the ways community members can contact police and make complaints, instituting the use of an outside police auditor to review complaints and installing audio video cameras in police vehicles have been amongst Johnson's efforts to increase communication and transparency between the Police Department and community members, Ryan said.

"She has tried to be responsive to the community and to be completely transparent to see we are playing fair and that we respect the rights of everyone and the constitution and we're not afraid to show it," Ryan said.

The number of complaints against the department has been decreased during Johnson's tenure and is down to about 10 or 20 complaints out of about 60,000 police contacts each year, according to Ryan.

And, despite her critics, Johnson will not begin taking her unused vacation and leave time for another month.

"She is still the chief in the building for another month so she will continue her duties," Ryan said. "I don't think she'll be shying away from doing her job."

Palo Alto Mayor Larry Klein, who swiftly released a statement following Johnson's remarks calling them "unacceptable, unconstitutional and un-American," said the timing of Johnson's retirement is appropriate.

"I think the chief's announcement of her retirement was a wise decision at this point," Klein said. "We certainly respect the excellent service she has given the city for 34 years."

Klein said Johnson's comments were made on a Thursday and he was quick to issue his statement condemning the idea of racial profiling the next morning.

"My first reason for doing that is that it's just wrong to do and I certainly don't want to have anything to do with it as an elected official in my community," Klein said.

In reaction to Johnson's remarks, the City Council has received numerous comments from community members condemning Johnson's remarks and others in support of the Police Chief. Klein said the council takes no action and makes no comment on job performance in such cases because city charter gives hiring and firing power to the city manager.

"We've of course long had a policy against racial profiling," Klein said. He said the city manager is working with the city's independent police auditor to do an investigation into whether racial profiling has been used by police.

Klein said whoever is chosen as the new police chief will continue with the actions Johnson has already taken in the past three weeks.

"I'm sure her successor will follow through on a series of meetings to assure the community that we don't engage in racial profiling," he said.

Palo Alto Vice Mayor Peter Drekmeier said he was surprised by Johnson's comments but that the remarks don't define her 34 years of service.

"I thought her comments were unfortunate, but I didn't think they represented the person she is," Drekmeier said. "I think Chief Johnson cares a lot about people and tried to lead the department towards being effective but also fair."

Drekmeier said as the city moves forward in addressing the issues raised by Johnson's remarks, an open dialogue and hard work will be important.

"I think it's sad that she is leaving but at the same time an opportunity for her to move on and for the city to continue to address these issues," he said. "I think the issue became so controversial that we started having some of the dialogue that was necessary and I'm hoping that will continue."


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