Auditor to review Palo Alto police policies

December 3, 2008 1:30:38 PM PST
An independent auditor hired by the Palo Alto City Council is investigating the Police Department's policy on racial profiling and will make an initial report in February, City Manager Jim Keene said Wednesday.

The decision to hire an auditor came after an Oct. 30 community meeting at which Police Chief Lynne Johnson made comments construed by some as encouraging police to use racial profiling to catch culprits in a recent spate of robberies in which suspects have been described as black. Johnson asked officers to make "consensual contact" with black men seen in locations where robberies have occurred. The chief's comments caused a community uproar, including from residents, church leaders and Stanford University students. After two public apologies for remarks she said were "misconstrued," 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. Keene said he made recommendations, including contracting an independent auditor, within a week of Johnson's comment. "It was pretty immediate," he said. The council voted Monday to approve the $20,000 contract, which will be added to the existing two-year, $50,000 contract the city has with the county of Los Angeles Office of Independent Review, an independent citizen oversight group. "They, in a sense, provide ongoing police oversight for the city when we get complaints or if there is a special project assignment," Kenne said of the office. The council amended the existing contract to expand the scope of the independent auditor's work, which will now include a review of the department's racial profiling policy, training, data collection and other practices, Keene said. The payments in the contract are based on a billable hourly basis, Keene said. The senior attorney at the Office of Independent Review hired by the city comes at a rate of about $200 an hour. Keene said he will coordinate with the auditor on behalf of the council, though final reports will be made directly to council members. Keene said the audit was requested to ensure compliance with the existing policy of zero-tolerance of racial profiling as well as to shed light on the Police Department's policies for the community, Keene said. "The city has had specific policies and training and practices around racial profiling for some time, but certainly in the wake of the chief of police's comments and community reaction, the council felt it was imperative that we have an independent review of the policies and practices and recommended changes," Keene said. As the department works to improve communication with community members, a nationwide search for a new police chief will begin with the new year. Assistant Chief Dennis Burns will take the position of acting police chief from Dec. 19 until Feb. 3, when Johnson's retirement will become official. Keene said interviews for the job will likely be conducted from mid-February to mid-March, with the hope of finding a new chief in April. "In a city like Palo Alto, of course we're going to hire an experienced and capable professional person," he said. "This is an extremely desirable position in a great community, and I think we'll have many qualified candidates."