The Los Altos Hills resident who claimed that Palo Alto officers used excessive force on him after he suffered an epileptic seizure during an August 2013 traffic stop has agreed to drop all claims against the city and the officers involved in exchange for a $250,000 payment.
The settlement, which the City Council approved on Feb. 16, became finalized earlier this week when Tyler Harney and his attorney, David Helbraun, signed the deal, releasing the city from all existing and future claims relating to the incident that occurred on Aug. 3, 2013.
In a claim filed last year in U.S. District Court, Harney alleged that at least two police officers pushed him against a squad car after pulling over a vehicle in which Harney was a passenger. Harney alleged that as he began to convulse uncontrollably from a seizure disorder, he was forced to the ground face-first by the officers.
The suit claims that one officer put his knee forcefully against Harney's back and another twisted back his left arm while saying, "Stop, or I'm going to break your arm" (or words to that effect, according to the lawsuit). Harney also alleged that the officer did indeed severely break his arm and/or shoulder, according to the lawsuit. Harney was ultimately transported at Stanford Hospital, where he underwent an operation on his arm and shoulder, the lawsuit states. On Aug. 7, 2013, he was taken to Santa Clara County Main Jail, from where he was released on Aug. 8, according to the lawsuit.
In addition to the city and the police officers, a list of defendants in Harney's suit includes Santa Clara County, Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith (and her department) and Department of Corrections Chief John Hirokawa (and his department). In discussing the role of the Palo Alto Police Department, Harney alleged that it was the department's custom and policy to use excessive force against citizens, ignore known or reported uses of excessive force by officers against citizens and to "tamper with or destroy video and audio evidence of such uses of excessive force."
In its response to the suit, the city had consistently denied all allegations, though it acknowledged that Harney was indeed traveling in a vehicle that was stopped by a Palo Alto officer, was arrested, taken to Stanford Hospital and thereafter Santa Clara County Jail. The city maintained that all actions undertaken by the defendants in this case were lawful and undertaken "in defense of self and/or defense of others."
While Palo Alto police vehicles are all equipped with cameras (and some officers now use body-worn cameras), in this case there was no recording available. When asked about the city's settlement with Harney during the Weekly's "Behind the Headlines" webcast on Feb. 26, 2016, Mayor Pat Burt attributed this to a "malfunctioning of our police recording devices." He noted that at the time of the incident, the city was already in the midst of replacing the devices -- an effort that has since been completed.
The council in November 2013 approved an agreement with the company WatchGuard for new in-car video systems for the entire police department fleet. At the time, a police department report noted that the existing system (which had been in place since 2006) was "at the end of its technical lifecycle." The department also purchased at that time nine body-worn cameras to test on a pilot basis.
"We think not having those recordings was a disadvantage on defending ourselves and, as a result, the city attorney thought the most prudent thing to do was to settle for this amount," Burt said.
He noted that the amount was neither what the plaintiff had initially sought nor what the city would've preferred to pay. Rather, it was a "negotiated settlement," Burt said.
Under the terms of the settlement that Harney signed on March 1, he agreed to release the the City of Palo Alto, the police department and the officers involved from any and all claims, liens, demands and damages. The agreement also makes it clear that neither the payment in the settlement nor the settlement's negotiations "shall be considered as admissions on the part of releasees."