Guest opinion: Black men's encounters with police suggest need for civilian oversight of department | March 8, 2017 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Viewpoint - March 8, 2017

Guest opinion: Black men's encounters with police suggest need for civilian oversight of department

by LaDoris H. Cordell

The poignant stories of DeBraun Thomas, Jonathan Turner, and JT Faraji, black men featured in the Almanac's cover story by Kate Bradshaw ("Policing, race and community," Feb. 22) deeply saddened me. These young men described their encounters with Menlo Park police, oftentimes in response to calls from white residents who found the young men's presence on their streets to be suspicious.

Unfortunately, their stories are not uncommon in neighborhoods throughout this country. During my time as the independent police auditor in San Jose, our office frequently fielded complaints from African American and Latino men about police-initiated traffic stops and pedestrian stops that did not result in citations or arrests. Indeed, a recent analysis of stops in the city of San Jose revealed that black and Latino drivers were more likely to be stopped, more likely to be interrogated, curb-sat, handcuffed and searched than whites. That Mr. Turner can no longer deliver food for Door-Dash in Menlo Park because he is fearful of residents calling the police on him speaks volumes about how far we have yet to go in race relations in this country.

"Every once in a while, your gut is going to tell you that individual ... doesn't look right. Trust your intuition ... Trust it, and call us and let us do our job." This was the message that Police Chief Bob Jonsen gave to Menlo Park residents at a community meeting to discuss residential burglaries. While undoubtedly well-intentioned, his message was deeply flawed in that he failed to even mention the issue of race. There was no reminder to residents that people of color are not, by definition, "suspicious." There was no statement from him about the importance of residents examining their own personal racial biases before making that 911 call. Race must no longer be the elephant in the room. Race is integral to policing in the 21st century.

Ms. Bradshaw's second article in the same issue ("Wrongful arrest suit: Racial profiling alleged") described the racial profiling lawsuit filed by Francisco Guevara, who alleged that a Menlo Park police officer racially profiled him in August 2015. The truth of that allegation will be decided in federal court. What I found most striking about the article was the boastful statement by Menlo Park City Attorney Bill McClure: "We've never had any case where an allegation of racial profiling was upheld or validated ... [Racial profiling] has been a non-issue." Since the city of Menlo Park does not have independent oversight of its police department, we are left to rely entirely upon the word of Mr. McClure that all is well in his city, that racial profiling doesn't exist, the experiences of Mr. Turner, Mr. Faraji, and Mr. Thomas, notwithstanding.

In Menlo Park, as in every city on the Peninsula, save San Jose and Palo Alto, complaints of misconduct from the public, such as racial profiling or excessive force or discourtesy, are investigated by the very agencies against whom the individuals have complained. In other words, in those cities, the police police themselves; there is no independent civilian oversight. As a result, we have no idea how many complaints of racial profiling have been filed against the police in Menlo Park, whether the complaints were investigated thoroughly, and whether the findings were objective and unbiased. Independent civilian oversight would give us that information.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "The time is always ripe to do right." As Ms. Bradshaw's articles demonstrated, the relationship between communities of color and the Menlo Park Police Department could be far better. Independent civilian oversight of the Menlo Park Police Department would be a major step in building a better relationship. The time is ripe for the city of Menlo park to do right.

LaDoris H. Cordell is a retired Superior Court judge and former independent police auditor for San Jose. She resides in Palo Alto.


Like this comment
Posted by Pam Jones
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Mar 13, 2017 at 3:55 pm

Pam Jones is a registered user.

Thank-you Ms. Cordell for your support. At the February 28 City County meeting a Belle Haven Menlo Park resident recommended community oversight stating "we can make a model that will make sure the police are not policing themselves."

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