Policing town hall draws large turnout, passionate discussion about reform

Open Streets
Screenshot From Town Hall
Los Altos city leaders participated in a virtual town hall on policing on Tuesday. The discussion was moderated by former Superior Court of California Judge LaDoris Cordell.

Approximately 160 attendees participated in a virtual town hall on policing in Los Altos Tuesday (July 28), pressing the police chief, city council and city manager on a variety of issues surrounding police reform.

During the three-and-a-half-hour listening session moderated by retired Superior Court of California Judge LaDoris Cordell, nearly 50 speakers directly addressed the five council members, Police Chief Andy Galea and City Manager Chris Jordan. Many more submitted written questions and comments via text. They reacted to the citation and arrest data recently released by the city, questioned the necessity of school resource officers and shared their personal experiences with police.

Cordell, with her sharp, clear voice, toggled seamlessly between speakers and written comments, one after the other. Galea responded to most questions and concerns, and Mayor Jan Pepper pledged to discuss the opinions voiced at next month’s council meeting.

Data feedback

At the top of many participants’ minds was the data on arrests and citations made by Los Altos police over the past three years, which indicated a much higher rate of nonresident stops and disproportionate stops of Black and Hispanic people. However, the city did not provide data on stops that didn’t result in citations or arrests, and a fair portion of data was attributed to an “other” category of race – because California drivers’ licenses don’t list a person’s race and officers rely on their observations.

Still, the data that was released drew criticism.

“Any way you look at it, the numbers are appalling,” said Susan Russell, a longtime Los Altos resident. “As a white person who has lived here for more than 40 years, I’ve never been stopped. I don’t think I’m a good driver.”

Jeanine Valadez, a Hispanic Los Altos homeowner since 1989, said that she has been stopped eight to 10 times, and additional stop data would be important because she never felt comfortable reporting the interactions to police herself, as the police had her license and home address.

Most of her stops, Valadez claimed, consisted of police asking if she owned the Lexus she drove in or if she were a resident. Then, they would return her license to her and walk away. When her son – a Los Altos High School graduate – was 10, he made her a Build-a-Bear dressed as a police officer with a voice chip programmed to say, “Is this your car, ma’am?”

“It was kind of a sad family joke,” Valadez said. “My family in Southern California would make fun of me for living in Los Altos because I was always stopped.”

Los Altos does not have to comply with the Racial and Identity Profiling Act, which requires release of more extensive data, until 2023. Galea said the city was working toward technology upgrades to be able to produce more data.

“You can certainly draw some conclusions just by the numbers themselves,” Galea said. “I think to really make or reach any substantive conclusions about any of the data, there needs to be a lot more research to be done.”

School resource officers

At least one-fifth of the speakers said they were either part of or supporting Justice Vanguard Foundation, an activist group comprising students, alumni and staff from the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District. The speakers from the organization strongly favored police reform and encouraged city leaders to be more progressive in making changes to the police department.

Many of the speakers with ties to MVLA urged Galea to consider removing school resource officers, which, according to the city website, “function as a police officer in the school setting.”

Seth Donnelly, who has taught at Los Altos High School for more than 20 years, said many students and staff of color feel racially subjected to and profiled by SROs.

“That does not mean every individual SRO is a bad person,” Donnelly said. “But what it means is the institution of police on school campus is creating an intolerable atmosphere that is not safe for Black students in particular or even Black staff.”

In response, Galea said he was open to a discussion on the future of SROs. But he noted that Los Altos has only one SRO, who serves approximately 16 public and private schools.

“I receive a lot of positive comments regarding our SRO,” Galea said.” I have requests for more SROs than we do. I don’t want people to have the impression that we’re just actively patrolling the hallway of schools, because that’s exactly not what is taking place.”

Some support police

A few participants voiced their support for the Los Altos Police Department, mentioning positive interactions and a desire to maintain or even increase police presence over concerns about protecting property or vehicles.

“We want our property protected,” said resident Kelly Hawkes. “That means we want our homes and businesses not looted nor vandalized.”

Roberta Phillips, who lives on San Antonio Road, said that when she talked to Galea about the number of speeding cars that drive by her house, the chief responded by adding speed radar equipment six times a year.

“I know we have got growth that we can all do and do better,” Phillips said. “But I did want to compliment our police department … [They] were very responsive and did come up with solutions. I just want to thank them for being a really good police department.”

The city council members remained silent throughout the listening session, other than the mayor, who said the items discussed would be brought up at the next council meeting in August.

“We thank everyone for being so actively engaged tonight, sharing so many ideas and sharing your insights,” Pepper said. “It’s very, very helpful to us. One of the speakers made a comment, ‘Listening is the first step, and action is the next.’ I hope that we will take action.”

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