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[whitespace] PSOA takes proactive steps to combat racial profiling

Sunnyvale--In response to highly publicized reports of police officers using a person's ethnicity to determine who is pulled over for traffic stops, the Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety has adopted a program to explore its own practices.

The PSOA Sunnyvale Public Safety Officers Association conceived of the plan in late April under the tutelage of the San Jose chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The program, which involves a computer tracking program, will be implemented between now and October.

As part of the system, officers will record the race, age, and sex of offenders when they are pulled over, along with the reason for the stop and the outcome. The data will be reviewed periodically within the department to find out whether officers pull over a disproportionate number of minorities.

"[The PSOA] doesn't condone racial profiling or allow it to exist, but we figured it would probably be better to be real open and present the information to the public," said Lt. Phil Carr, who brought the issue forward at the April 25 PSOA meeting. "We realized there is this perception, and even if there is a small minority of people who believe this is happening, then we need to look into it."

Nedra Jones, first vice president of the San Jose NAACP chapter, said protests against racial profiling have been gaining momentum within the African American community for decades and recently have entered the nationwide consciousness.

"This is the kind of thing that has to be hooked into something big in order to bring attention to it," she said, adding that a Geraldo show centering on traffic-stop prejudice and several nationwide cases have thrust the issue into mainstream awareness. "In our communities, we've been trying to bring attention to this for years."

Both Jones and Carr point to a local case in San Jose where the police pulled over a black minister, who said officers handcuffed him and forced him to sit on the ground. Police then released him without giving him a ticket or reason for the stop and mistreatment.

And while Jones said the San Jose Police Department has been "very underhanded" about the racial-profiling issue, she commends Sunnyvale for taking a proactive response.

"[The PSOA], as an association, introduced this to management, which is very non-conventional," she said. "This came from the bottom up instead of the other way around and we really appreciate that."

After the PSOA members agreed to endorse a data-collection program, they then went to management for approval, which Carr said came readily.

"Usually it's the police chiefs who tell their guys they have to start doing this," Carr said. "But in this case, we wanted to take the opposite course of action and bring it forward ourselves."

The interim director of public safety, Brown Taylor, said he cannot give the PSOA enough praise for the kind of attitude that initiated the program.

"They are very eager to look at this as an organization and they certainly embrace the concept of being very open," Taylor said. "They're very proud of what they do as an organization and they really want to promote an open system."

Carr said the program will coincide with new computerized dispatch systems for the department which are scheduled to arrive sometime between the end of July and October. The systems display general information such as the location of an officer, his or her status, any requests for backup, and license-plate information on stopped cars.

And with this updated system, officers will also input the items concerning racial profiling, like ethnicity and the reason for and outcome of the stop.

"We still need to make sure the new system is capable of inputting these new fields since officers are always worried about new forms and things to be filled out," Carr said, but added that there are no glitches so far.

Jones said she believes the computerized systems remove any room for misrepresentation or fudging reports.

"Once people know you're watching them, people start to act differently," she said. She said she is not aware of any reports of police brutality or discrimination in Sunnyvale traffic stops, but stresses that all local communities should be working together in eradicating both perceptions and problems.

"You go from one city to the other by just crossing the street around here," she said. "So we're all enmeshed in everything together."

Carr said studies he has seen indicating that blacks are pulled over a disproportionate number of times "may be an actual reflection in some places, but that doesn't relate to this area" because of the low percentage of African Americans in this area. Sunnyvale's black population is 4 percent compared to the national average of 11 percent.

"Our feeling is that we're doing a real professional job, but that doesn't mean we're naive enough to think there aren't people who take a skewed look at minorities and [are] treating them differently," Carr said.

PSOA is also looking into other programs in conjunction with the NAACP, such as a education course for young minorities to teach them about reasons and standard procedures for traffic stops.

"There is a real perception with young black men that they'll get yanked out of their cars and beaten or shot or something," Carr said, which served as impetus for the course.

"We want to educate young minorities about what actually goes on in a car stop, what the officers do, why they do it, and what they look for," he said.

Jones said many African American males have gone so far as to keep their license and registration on the visor as opposed to in the glove box to eliminate cause for any misunderstanding when drivers reach for their information and officers may think they are reaching for a weapon.

"It's a sad scenario that in the 1990s African Americans need to do these things," Jones said. "But it doesn't matter who you are when you're behind that wheel. And if it's saving people, it's worth it."

Jones said it is her hope that Sunnyvale's program will encourage other departments to take a look at their practices and realize this is a valid issue.

"I hope this sets a precedent and will vanguard this whole effort nationwide."
Kelly Wilkinson

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