Early last year, a citizen visited the Palo Alto Police Department to lodge a complaint against an officer who had cited him for throwing a lit cigarette to the ground.
The man alleged that he did not intentionally throw the cigarette but accidentally dropped it while waving to the officer. He argued that the citation should be dismissed. He also complained that the officer did not tell him what would happen if he didn't sign the citation and that the officer threatened him with arrest, according to a recent report from Independent Police Auditors Michael Gennaco and Stephen Connolly.
A review of a recording of the incident taken by the officer's body camera led the police to conclude the complaint was meritless. Yet one aspect of the investigation into the complaint gave Gennaco pause: When hearing the citizen's allegations, the sergeant conducting the interview said to the man that he didn't see anything inappropriate, prompting the citizen to question whether the department would take his complaint seriously, according to Gennaco.
The incident wasn't the only one prompting the auditors' concerns with the way the department receives citizen complaints. In another case, a doctor was pulled over in her car and cited for texting on her cellphone, despite her arguments that the texts were work related and "of emergency nature." The officer asked to see her phone and she agreed, though she later complained that this request violated laws regarding confidentiality of medical records.
The department's investigation and Gennaco's and Connolly's independent review concluded that the officer's actions were reasonable and appropriate. Yet once again, the auditors raised a flag about the complaint-intake process, which he said featured "extensive commentary by the handling supervisor about the evidence within the video, applicable laws, etc." Though the tone of the supervisor was respectful, Gennaco wrote, the extensive commentary creates a problem from a public-relations perspective, potentially raising questions about the objectivity and legitimacy of the investigation.
The police department, Gennaco wrote, "should evaluate its process for initial intake and assessment of citizen complaints, so as to ensure that supervisors do not inadvertently deter citizens or create an impression of initial bias."
In reviewing the department's complaint procedures, Gennaco and Connolly noted that the department generates "very few formal citizen complaint investigations each year."
"While we have no doubt that this is partly a reflection of effective performance and positive community relations, the 'screening process' that occurs at intake may also be a factor," the audit states. "Such an approach has its advantages, including efficiency and protecting officer's employment records from clearly frivolous claims. But other departments deal with this phenomenon in ways that do not create potentially problematic incentive for supervisors who are entrusted with the initial interviews of disgruntled citizens.
"Better perhaps, to at least initially accept the complaint on its face, and complete the subsequent fact-finding as needed. There is always time for further dialogue and explanation at a later point, in those cases when further communication has the potential to be beneficial."
The two incidents are among eight that Gennaco and Connolly reviewed from the first half of 2015. As in the past, the audit found that in these cases, like in many others, the officers who were subject to complaints acted appropriately. But that doesn't mean the auditors didn't have constructive criticism for the department.
There was the case of an officer who fired a Taser at a burglary suspect who had hopped a fence and tried to run away. While one officer pointed a rifle at the suspect, another one deployed the Taser, nailing the suspect in the back and buttocks, according to the audit.
Gennaco and Connolly, who review all incidents involving Taser deployments, reviewed the Police Department's investigation, which concluded that the Taser user conformed to the department's policy. The auditors concurred, but they also questioned the officer's decision to chase the suspect rather than pursuing the safer tactic of "follow to contain," in which officers seek cover, keep the suspect within eyesight and broadcast the pursuit so that other officers can assist.
The auditors also questioned the decision by the officer who deployed a rifle, a weapon that allegedly kept him from being able to "effectively transition to a foot pursuit when the suspect began to run.
"So that Palo Alto can be better prepared to handle the next similar tactical challenge, the issue of the rifle as a weapon (of) choice in this case could have been identified and evaluated by the department's tactical experts to determine whether a better option existed under these circumstances."
While the officer who fired the Taser was found to be compliant with city policies, the same cannot be said of an officer who participated in a brief car pursuit and a heated verbal exchange with a man who was pulled over in 2014 for having two minor warrants (none of the officers in the audit are named). The car ultimately stopped at a dead-end street, and the man argued with the officer before being arrested.
In this case, the audit found, the officer acted in a discourteous manner and inaccurately characterized the incident. The District Attorney's Office, the audit notes, rejected the case against the man after discovering "gaps between the written reports and the video evidence as well as issues with the lead officer's demeanor."
In this case, it was the Police Department rather than the complainant that triggered the investigation, which the auditors deemed to be "meticulous, thorough and effective." The department ultimately determined that the numerous lapses by the officer amounted to "inadequate job performance," and he was subsequently disciplined.
In another episode, a member of the Police Department's command staff identified a video recording in which an officer pursuing a vehicle without broadcasting the chase on the radio, as required by department policy. The department initiated an internal investigation and determined that the officer had not only failed to notify his superiors that he was pursuing a suspect but also that he initiated the pursuit based on a traffic violation that did not justify it.
Furthermore, the officer's driving was "without due regard and caution for the safety of all persons using the highway, including passing vehicles on their right while continuing to activate his emergency equipment." The officer was disciplined, received additional training and underwent a period of "increased monitoring."
The audit also suggests that this episode of unsafe driving was not an isolated incident on the force. In another case, an officer responding to a call about a stolen car made a decision to "move at a high speed, and without lights and sirens, in order to provide assistance," according to the audit. The chase included unsafe driving, including passing a car on the wrong side of the road, the audit stated. The officer, who reportedly had prior issues with driving decisions just weeks earlier, was disciplined by the department for violations of policy.
Finally, the auditors also raised an issue with the department over its protocol of allowing officers who are under investigation for misconduct to review video or audio recordings of the incident before they are interviewed about it. Gennaco said that such a practice runs counter to best investigative practices and potentially undermines the public's confidence in the investigation.
Seeing a recording "necessarily shapes consciously or unconsciously how the officer responds to questions in the interview," the audit states, urging the department to change its policy and forbid the practice in the future.
Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that a member of the command staff was pursuing a vehicle without broadcasting the chase; however, it was a member of the command staff who saw video of an officer pursuing a vehicle without broadcasting it. The Weekly regrets the editing error.