The city of Palo Alto's prospective adoption of the 8 Can't Wait platform for police reform was met with significant skepticism last week from a panel of experts, who said that such a move would be wholly inadequate for the task at hand.
As part of an effort to respond to public outrage about police brutality and systemic racism nationwide, the Palo Alto City Council on June 16 directed the Human Relations Commission to review the consistency of Palo Alto Police Department policies with those in the 8 Can't Wait campaign, created by the nonprofit group Campaign Zero to reduce police officers' excessive use of force.
On July 9, a five-member panel advising the Human Relations Commission did not dismiss the platform outright but regarded it as a first — and very small — step.
David Alan Sklansky, co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center and author of the book "Democracy and Policing," said the 8 Can't Wait policies seem sensible but are designed to be non-controversial, consensus reforms. It's hard to argue against implementing them, he said, but even its authors said the platform should be taken as a first step.
The 8 Can't Wait policies are: ban chokeholds and strangleholds, require de-escalation, require warnings before shooting, require officers to exhaust all alternatives before shooting, require officers to intervene and stop excessive force by other officers, ban shooting at moving vehicles, require a use-of-force continuum and require comprehensive reporting.
Over-policing isn't the fault of police departments, but the systemic failure of governments and society, Sklansky and other panelists said.
"The police department did not ask to be our principal response agency to people in mental health distress, to people in emotional distress," he said. "They took that lead on that because nobody else was going to do it.
"When we ended forced institutionalization of people with mental illnesses in the late 1960s and 1970s, we were supposed to create community mental health systems and we never did. We just asked the police to pick up the slack," he said. "It's a good idea to think about ways people other than armed police officers can respond to people in mental health distress."
Matthew Clair, Stanford University assistant professor of sociology and author of the book "Privilege and Punishment: How Race and Class Matter in Criminal Court," said these failures date back decades.
"Police inherently are not a de-escalating institution. Police work, given our legal norms around probable cause, and the proactive-policing policies and culture that arose since the '80s and '90s especially with community policing practices, promote actively searching for illegal behavior, which is based on a logic of escalation," he said.
Sklansky said that while community policing, touted as a more humane and inclusive model, brought about progress, it also had serious downfalls.
"The biggest flaws with the community policing agenda and the procedural justice agenda is they didn't attend sufficiently to issues of race and they didn't attend sufficiently to issues of violence, and those are the issues that I think people around the country today are asking police and municipalities to pay more attention to," he said.
City policies should try to recover the agenda of community policing and procedural justice but should also take into account what they missed in terms of race and violence, he said.
Clair said Palo Alto's police department has policies in place that in spirit align with the 8 Can't Wait platform but questioned their implementation.
"I wonder how can we ensure policies are actually enforced? Will police officers be fired who violate them?" he asked.
"There's no certainty that the police will hold themselves to these policies and there's no mechanism for external enforcement of a policy manual," he said.
For instance, the Palo Alto Police Department's policy manual states it encourages de-escalation.
"Officers should consider, as time and circumstances reasonably permit, conflict resolution and de-escalation techniques when responding to all types of calls for service and when engaging in self-initiated activity," the manual states. But in practice, that hasn't always played out.
He noted that the city now faces a $10 million lawsuit for an assumption an officer made on July 10, 2019, that a man who was talking outside of Happy Donuts to others was engaged in a drug transaction. Video did not show that to be the case. The officer's use of force, including throwing the man, Julio Arevalo, to the ground, fractured Arevalo's eye socket.
Another expert took aim at the efficacy of implicit-bias training for officers, a special interest of the Human Relations Commission.
Anand Subramanian, managing director at PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing racial and economic equity, said that police reform fundamentally does not work: Cities repeatedly grapple with cycles of bias followed by attempts at reform, followed by more bias and more reform attempts, he said.
"Defunding and investing in communities is a path that will break that cycle," he said.
He, too, cautioned against putting too much into stock into the adoption of 8 Can't Wait policies.
"There is desperation to do something whenever things like this come up. 8 Can't Wait is that something," he said. But "8 Can't Wait offers false hope. We need more time, patience and investments to highlight programs. If we just jump to reform, it will be a mistake."
Even investing in reform of police departments is a matter of debate. Clair said reducing police budgets and putting the money into nonviolent and nonpunitive programs would better serve communities and reduce crime. The city, he said, should investigate the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program, a mental health crisis intervention program started in Eugene, Oregon, a suggestion made by Palo Alto resident Winter Dellenbach. Since 1989, the program has sent medics and mental health crisis counselors instead of police officers to 911 calls that are nonviolent in nature but relate to addiction, disorientation, mental health crises and homelessness.
Clair said such programs successfully reduce crime. A study of 264 cities found that from the 1990s to 2010s, for every 10 additional nonprofits funded in a city of 100,000 people, the murder rate shrank by 9%, violent crime rate dropped 6% and property crime was lowered by 4%.
Another randomized control study in Chicago found that when more than 1,634 youth were employed in a summer-jobs program, violence decreased by 43% over 16 months. The decline also occurred after the jobs program ended because it changed behavior, he said.
Palo Alto Police Chief Bob Jonsen cautioned that creating an infrastructure for a new set of programs could be costly. While he agreed with Clair's suggestion that defunding could begin by not filling vacancies within the department, it would be a slow process, he said.
Sklansky also cautioned against focusing on budgets or on the size of budgets when replacing police functions with new social programs.
"Doing things 'the right way' can cost more than doing things the wrong way," he said.
Clair said that there are plenty of opportunities to redirect funding exists given the size of the police department budget.
"In fiscal year 2020, the city's general fund spent $43.8 million on police — one-fifth of the city's expenses," he said, but the city spends just $1.6 million on support for nonprofit organizations.
Panelist Kenan Moos, a member of Justice Vanguard, which has staged many local protests in favor of police reforms, said local Bay Area cities have "huge financial power and a lot of money to go into these social programs."
8 Can't Wait is "a very necessary and very small first step in terms of something that can be done today, pretty immediately, but it's definitely not something that's going to make that big of a difference in terms of protecting lives," he said.
Jonsen said the department has already implemented much of the "8 Can't Wait" platform. The department now prohibits carotid artery restraint and has modified its de-escalation policy. It could still modify its retention and accountability policies to better align with 8 Can't Wait, he said.
(While the department policies do largely mirror those in 8 Can't Wait, several recent incidents and police audits suggest that some of the policies pertaining to de-escalation and intervening aren't always followed.)
Regarding accountability, State Assembly Bill 953 requires all agencies to capture data on every interaction, Jonsen said. The department will have a computer system in place to capture the data, hopefully as soon as next year. For now, the department is manually collecting the data and should soon have high-level reports, he said.
Other residents who spoke at the July 9 meeting said they hope that accountability data and new policies will improve how police treat them.
Teresa Brown, an African American resident whose family has lived in Palo Alto for 100 years, said she and her family have faced multiple embarrassing, invasive and frightening encounters with Palo Alto officers on flimsy pretexts such as dim license-plate lights. Her family members have been held for long periods of time, and placed on the ground or frisked against a squad car in plain view of other residents.
"It is hateful, demeaning," she said.
Moos said these incidents have a lasting, detrimental effect on people of color.
"For me, when I go outside, no matter — no matter that fact that I'm a senior, I'm in college, no matter how educated I am — I'm treated the same. I leave the house, I leave wherever, and I am just a Black man. And the way that I get treated for that from police officers is very scary. I've been pulled over in this area 22 of the 23 times; followed to work," Moos said.
"There's a lot of people who feel the way I feel and who are terrorized constantly. And it sucks. It really sucks with how you see yourself as a person," he said.
The Human Relations Commission will continue its discussion of police reform on Wednesday, July 22. The commissioners will also vote on a set of recommendations to the City Council regarding the 8 Can't Wait platform.