Six Midpeninsula cities collaborate with Stanford on policing research to inform local policy decisions.
By Kylie Gordon
In the wake of George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, and the shooting of Breonna Taylor in her home by Louisville police earlier this year, Bay Area residents called for reinvigorated conversations about police reform in their local communities, and cities responded with resolutions and value statements committing to racial justice and equity.
In response to these calls for change, local jurisdictions collaborated with Stanford to pursue research on policing reform and best practices. Conducted through the Bill Lane Center for the American West, the research is part of a larger effort by Stanford’s new Office of Community Engagement (OCE) to harness the expertise and resources of units across the university and apply them to mutual challenges faced by our region.
Focus on racial justice
City leaders from East Palo Alto, Los Altos, Menlo Park, Mountain View, Palo Alto and Redwood City participated in the collaboration, with the goal of reimagining public safety in their communities. Though all six of these cities were already exploring race, equity and policing within their own city limits, the Bill Lane Center’s convenings enabled a regional conversation, bringing city leaders together in a joint effort, said Joyce Tagal, ’20, who conducted the research through the Lane Center’s City Manager’s Initiative. Tagal earned a master’s degree through the Stanford Public Policy and Education program.
“We’ve learned there is great value in approaching cities and asking them to design their own research questions,” said Preeti Hehmeyer, associate director of the Bill Lane Center. “When cities, as opposed to academics, determine the agenda based on community conditions, we know that the results will address the most urgent matters city managers face day-to-day.”
During 10 weeks of rapid research that included literature review and case study analysis, Tagal investigated alternative policing policies, practices and structures that cities could potentially implement to inform policy decisions. She reviewed the latest academic and think tank studies on policing reforms and conducted interviews with Stanford faculty and community leaders. The project culminated in a late-August presentation to city officials from across the Midpeninsula.
What the research shows
In initial conversations with local leaders, the Lane Center was asked to investigate best practices in three areas of policing in particular: data collection and standards, culture change and independent oversight.
More comprehensive 911 and non-emergency call data analysis can help police departments better respond to residents’ needs. “Call data is a really good indicator of what the public actually needs,” said Tagal, who emphasized that more detailed analysis could help cities make decisions about resource allocations and how to best utilize the skills and training of officers.
In general, the research also revealed strong feelings on all sides of the reform debate that police officers are tasked with too much. Mutual acknowledgment of this sentiment can pave the way for potential culture change in police departments, a particularly challenging area of reform that city managers asked Stanford to explore.
A leading community policing model out of Eugene, Oregon, is currently under consideration by many of the cities studied. In this model, known as CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets), social workers and mental health professionals respond to distress calls instead of armed police officers, relieving some of the burden on an overtaxed police force. As part of the collaboration between Stanford and neighboring cities, the Lane Center hosted city managers for a presentation by Tim Black, director of consulting for CAHOOTS’ White Bird Clinic. Black offered examples of how other cities are transitioning to a community policing model, sharing tools and training techniques for resolving crises without violence.
City managers also expressed interest in better understanding the role of independent oversight in improving policing practices. Research suggested that oversight is not a “one-size-fits-all” model; cities need to work with residents to understand their specific needs, and then design oversight practices accordingly. For example, cities with “strained but not broken” relations between police and community might consider a review or appellate model that welcomes civilian input into investigations, but has limited power beyond that. For cities whose residents lack trust in police, perhaps due to past incidents with excessive use-of-force, more systemic “investigative” or “evaluative” oversight models might be in order.
City manager response
The collaboration proved to be a “win-win,” according to Megan Swezey Fogarty, associate vice president for community engagement, and “a great example of how Stanford can convene researchers and community leaders to collaborate on mutual challenges in the region.” This sentiment was echoed by the city managers themselves, who praised the research collaboration for advancing the important social justice work.
“I appreciated all the time and effort Joyce put into this research project for the benefit of the regional cities,” said Kimbra McCarthy, city manager of Mountain View. “Her work was excellent and very meaningful towards our goals in Mountain View … This truly was a great joint effort and is indicative of the collaboration we enjoy in our region,” McCarthy added.