PA council reviews police action plan

December 15, 2008 10:24:21 PM PST
The Palo Alto City Council tonight was scheduled to review a police action plan prepared by Assistant Police Chief Dennis Burns, following meetings held with community groups upset with comments made by Police Chief Lynne Johnson.

During an Oct. 30 community meeting, 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 through Friday before using up vacation and leave time until February when she will retire after 34 years with the department.

Burns will take over as acting police chief Saturday morning and said today he will add his name to a list of prospective candidates for the full-time police chief job.

"I will throw my name in the hat," he said.

Burns said he has worked for the Police Department for more than 26 years and served as assistant chief for about a year and a half.

"I'm stepping into a new plan and into a new position," he said of his transition. "I'm growing as a person."

Johnson and Burns along with a management team worked for the last several weeks to prepare the "Police Department Action Plan for Outreach to Diverse Communities," which was scheduled to be discussed by the City Council during tonight's 6 p.m. meeting.

Johnson had promised to come back to the council with a plan to increase outreach and take other actions to address the discontent created by her comments, police Agent Dan Ryan said.

"Our chief promised she would come back and present her plant to the council," Ryan said. "This is six weeks later and (the plan) is finalized on our end."

The report does not require City Council action, according to Ryan.

The plan outlines a series of community outreach, training and policy and procedure measures the Police Department will take.

"I think the statements that were made back in October kind of hit a sensitive nerve for many members of our community," Ryan said. "It brought forth a sensitive topic, and we wanted to basically foster better communication and better understanding between the Police Department and stakeholders in the community."

The report states that the action plan was developed after meetings with community groups including members of the faith community, Stanford African-American students and the executive director of the NAACP.

The plan suggests meeting not only with Palo Alto community members but members of the Menlo Park and East Palo Alto communities.

"It should be noted that engaging in community outreach and policing beyond the city is unusual but staff is confident that it is the right thing to do and will enhance relations with the wider community and our neighbors," the report states.

Burns said the plan is an important step in moving the city forward and reaching out into other cities to develop long-term relationships, a move he called "unorthodox" for police departments.

"We want to move forward and we realize we need to engage our community outside of Palo Alto," Burns said. "We want to have the best relationships we can with not only our citizens but also citizens in neighboring communities."

Included in the recommendations are monthly meetings with the police chief to discuss current issues and concerns. East Palo Alto and Menlo Park police chiefs will be invited to some of the meetings, the report states.

A community advisory committee of eight to 12 people representing different faiths, the NAACAP, youth organizations and residents of both Palo Alto and neighboring East Palo Alto is suggested. The committee will advise the police chief on topics such as "police practices and race relations in order to strengthen police-community trust," the report states.

The plan also suggests the Police Department consider using mediation and facilitation services from the U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service and the Santa Clara County Office of Human Relations, Ryan said.

Meetings with police staff and community members could be facilitated by the service, providing "one more forum for members of the community to come forward and speak toward some of these apparently long-simmering issues in the minds of our community."

Burns said improving relationships with the community might also encourage more diverse applicants to Police Department jobs.

Various police training measures are also suggested, such as a two-day course on diversity and leadership and a daily training regimen that would focus on Constitutional and case law as well as department policy, Ryan said.

The training measures would add to the current, extensive training police officers already attend.

"It's not going to be a big change from the way we do business regularly," Ryan said of the training.

Also in the plan are measures relating to the independent police auditor, already hired and working to produce an initial report to the City Council next year, and a suggestion for meetings with students at Stanford and possibly with local high schools.

Ryan said the crux of the plan involves better communication between the Police Department and the community.

"A lot of the complaints we received after the chief's comments back in October were from five, 10 or 40 years ago, and we thought this is bigger than we knew," Ryan said. "We certainly understand where these feelings come from, and we want to be better prepared to meet those people's needs in the best professional manner."


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