Surveillance footage showing Palo Alto police officers arresting, mocking and slamming a resident of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park against a car windshield has fueled allegations that officers acted illegally in both making and justifying the arrest.
The Feb. 17, 2018, incident, which remains under internal investigation, has already prompted a federal lawsuit against the Palo Alto Police Department and spurred the department to place a veteran officer on leave, the city has confirmed. The attorney for Gustavo Alvarez, the Buena Vista resident who was arrested during the incident, told the Weekly that it also reveals a broader culture of corruption and discrimination in the department.
The footage, which was captured by Alvarez's home surveillance system and was provided to the Palo Alto Weekly, shows Officer Christopher Conde standing near Alvarez's mobile home in the Barron Park neighborhood trailer park. As Alvarez walks toward his front door, Conde calls Alvarez over and tells him, "I know you are driving with a suspended license."
Alvarez declines to come over and repeatedly asks Conde how he knew who was in the vehicle.
"You chased me down. How do you know who was driving?" Alvarez asks.
Conde responds, "I didn't."
Alvarez then tells him that he's not coming over and goes into his home.
Conde then calls for backup and at least four other officers arrive on scene, including Sgt. Wayne Benitez and police Agent Thomas Alan DeStefano, who screams through the door, "Come on out or we're going to kick the door in."
When Alvarez asks, "How? Do you have a warrant?"
DeStefano shouts back, "We don't need one!" and draws his gun.
As officers all repeatedly yell, "Come on out!" one of them kicks the door. As soon as Alvarez comes out of the house, Benitez, Conde and DeStefano grab him, pin him against the hood of his white car and cuff his hands behind his back.
The footage then shows Benitez grabs Alvarez by his jacket hood, slams him against the windshield and asks him, "You think you're a tough guy?"
"I'm bleeding," Alvarez responds.
"You're going to be bleeding a whole lot more," Benitez says as he walks him to a police cruiser.
Shortly after the encounter, Benitez describes the incident to another officer. In the recording from his microphone, the department veteran is heard referencing the fact that Alvarez is gay and saying, "Come and get me!" in a tone of exaggerated flamboyance.
Benitez is also heard telling the other officer, "See how quickly they behave once we put our foot down? And that's what we don't do enough of."
"We're not going to get sh-- on here by these freaking lowlifes," Benitez is heard saying in the recording.
The department's case against Alvarez ultimately collapsed after a judge dismissed the list of charges against him, which included driving with a suspended license, resisting arrest, possession of controlled substance paraphernalia and appropriation of lost property. Nine months after Alvarez's arrest, a judge granted a "motion to suppress" filed by Cody Salfen, the attorney representing Alvarez, and dismissed the case.
Palo Alto Police Chief Robert Jonsen did not respond to questions about the incident. The department did confirm, however, that Benitez is now on leave. The other four officers named in Alvarez' lawsuit, including Conde and DeStefano, remain on duty.
For Salfen, both the officers' conduct and the department's response are deeply problematic. At every step of the arrest, Salfen said, Palo Alto officers had botched the process and engaged in what he called "intentional misconduct."
"Any time they had an opportunity to do something right, they failed to do it," Salfen said.
The mistakes began with Conde trying to detain Alvarez in his driveway based on false justification (driving with a suspended license), a reason that the lawsuit describes as "baseless." Then, without a warrant, they broke his door, illegally apprehended him and arrested him on a false pretense that was later rejected by the court, which dismissed the department's charge against Alvarez, Salfen said. (As seen in the video, Palo Alto police officers who go to the mobile home park the next day and speak with a relative of Alvarez state that because Alvarez had fled from Conde, officers had the right to kick down his door.)
And after slamming Alvarez and causing him to bleed, Palo Alto officers not only failed to provide him with any medical aid, but they also didn't mention the use of force in subsequent reports. Salfen pointed to Benitez's incident report, which specified that after Alvarez was cuffed, there was "no other force" used on him. The department's policy manual defines "force" as "application of physical techniques or tactics, chemical agents or weapons to another person."
Salfen called the assertion that officers did not use force on Alvarez "a blatant lie."
"It broke his tooth. It bruised his lip. He was completely dazed, and it's pretty clear now that he also suffered a concussion as a result of his head striking the windshield," Salfen said.
The officers' conversations after the incident also indicated that they have a dislike for individuals who live at Buena Vista, including Alvarez, Salfen said. He noted that not a single officer at the scene interfered in the illegal conduct, which points to problems with the department's broader culture. He also noted that the department hasn't taken any "outward action" and has not condemned the officers' discriminatory conduct against Alvarez.
"The only logical conclusion is that their actions are at least in part motivated by their dislike for Gustavo, based on his socioeconomic status, his sexuality and his race," Salfen said. "The most disturbing thing is the risk this creates in terms of public safety, when you have individuals who are victimized on a regular and repeated basis that not only tolerate this behavior, they ratify and encourage it."
City Manager Ed Shikada said in a statement that "out of respect for the legal process and the rights of all involved, the city does not comment on matters in active litigation."
"The public should know that the Police Department has procedures to investigate allegations of misconduct thoroughly and to hold officers accountable if misconduct is determined to have occurred," Shikada said. "The city and the Police Department care deeply about our community and strive to provide the best service possible, expecting all city staff to treat everyone in the community fairly and with respect."
This was not Alvarez's first encounter with police. In 2012, he was arrested after he allegedly rappelled into the former JJ&F Market on College Avenue using a satellite-dish cable, and tried to burglarize the market. After the break-in, which triggered the burglar alarm, an officer found Alvarez hiding behind the building.
Alvarez was reportedly an employee at JJ&F who was fired a few months prior to the store break-in after owners noticed forged checks, the market's owner told the Weekly in 2012.
The Alvarez complaint is one of three recent lawsuits the Police Department has faced for excessive force or false arrest. In March 2018, the city settled a case with Tajae Murray and his mother, Alacia Hafner, for $250,000, after Murray was allegedly attacked and mauled by a police dog in April 2016, when he was 16 years old.
The city is also facing a lawsuit from Mahmoud Elsayed, a Santa Clara resident who was falsely arrested in March 2016 for allegedly smashing a floodlight in a condominium complex on West Charleston Road. While Elsayed owns a townhouse near the complex, that house was reportedly occupied by Airbnb tenants at the time of the incident.
• View the surveillance video here.