When Palo Alto launched an ambitious effort last year to reform police operations and promote social justice, one of the city's major goals was to shift some types of responses away from armed officers and toward mental health professionals.
Now, after more than a year of deliberations and negotiations with Santa Clara County, the city's efforts are starting to bear fruit.
The county's Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT) program, which partners police officers with a clinician for calls that involve people in mental health crises, is preparing to launch in Palo Alto later this year, police Capt. April Wagner told the City Council's Policy and Services Committee on Tuesday. The county's Behavioral Health Services has already hired the clinician who will work in Palo Alto and the Police Department has identified the officer who will be partnering with the mental health expert.
A report from the office of City Manager Ed Shikada states that the clinician and the officer will begin their in-house training together soon, with the goal of launching the new service later this year. Once that happens, the city will become one of just two county jurisdictions — along with the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office — to employ a PERT team, according to the report.
At the same time, the county also is looking to launch a separate program that would exclude police officers altogether. Known as Trusted Response Urgent Support Team (TRUST), the response program is modeled after the Cahoots program in Eugene, Oregon. The county plans to roll out the mobile response teams in east San Jose, Gilroy and Palo Alto. Unlike PERT, this program would be administered by community-based organizations that would respond to some of the less urgent calls involving mental health. The county plans to select the participating organizations and launch the program in the beginning of next year, said Palo Alto Deputy City Manager Chantal Gaines, who is spearheading the race and equity initiative.
The council committee lauded the latest developments in the city's effort to integrate mental health professionals into its emergency response. Council member Lydia Kou, who chairs the committee, called the new programs "very exciting."
"I kind of see we're there. I can actually feel it, whereas some time ago it was really far and didn't seem achievable," Kou said.
The committee's Tuesday discussion touched on a wide variety of elements that make up the city's initiative, which includes community conversations on race, improved data collection on police stops and demographic analysis of the city's own workforce. The council launched the initiative in response to widespread demonstrations after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officer in May 2020.
But even as committee members celebrated on Tuesday staff's significant progress on police reform, which also includes increasing the scope of the independent police auditor and revising the Police Department's use-of-force policies, they also acknowledged that the city still has plenty of work to do when it comes to fostering diversity and inclusion.
One area that is ripe for improvement is commission membership. A recent demographic analysis of the city's boards and commissions shows that white members make up 71% of their membership, while Asian members make up just 9%. This despite the fact that residents who identify as white and Asian make up 50% and 34% of the city's population, respectively, according to the U.S. Census.
Council members also pointed to the recent hate incident at Fuki Sushi restaurant, in which a man went on a rant and called a server "un-American" and asked her where she was born after he was told that the restaurant does not accept cash. Council member Greg Tanaka, who had attended numerous Stop Asian Hate rallies this year, said he has heard many stories from people who have faced discrimination. In many cases, including the Fuki Sushi incident, perpetrators face no repercussions.
"I remember talking to the owner of the Fuki Sushi restaurant and she was incredibly disappointed with the inability for action to happen," Tanaka said.
The Police Department has reported seeing four hate crimes in the city over the past year, a number that Tanaka said does not comport with his experiences in talking to people at various Stop Asian Hate rallies in recent months. Hate incidents, he said, are "woefully unreported" in the city.
Council member Greer Stone agreed that Palo Alto should explore a local law, which would allow the city to impose fines on residents who commit acts that are deemed to be hate incidents. He pointed to recent research showing a rise in hate incidents directed at Asian American residents. The organization Stop AAPI Hate reported 9,081 hate incidents between April 2020 and June 2021, with 63.7% of these cases consisting of verbal harassment and 13.7% involving physical assaults.
"We're seeing it here in the county and we're seeing it here in Palo Alto," Stone said. "That is the issue that requires more immediate attention."
City Attorney Molly Stump warned that crafting a local law would would entail some legal risks, given constitutional protection of free speech. Despite that caveat, the committee unanimously recommended that the city move ahead with developing a "misdemeanor ordinance" and consider other methods to deter hateful speech.
The committee also expressed support for the Human Relations Commission's effort to facilitate 100 conversations in small groups about race. The Rev. Kaloma Smith, chair of the commission, said 33 such conversations have already been recorded. They included 212 participants and ranged in length between 90 minutes and two hours. One of the findings that the commission found "stunning," Smith said, was learning that 30% of the participants have not had a conversation about race in Palo Alto before.
Smith also noted that the issues of racism are compounded by increasing economic disparity and a "lost sense of place of belonging for many Palo Altans."
"Although our population skewed significantly white, significantly older and significantly female, one of the critical things that we heard was that they didn't think they belong to this community as it is today," Smith said.