The city of Palo Alto will pay out $572,500 and require all officers in the Police Department to go through two hours of LGBTQ sensitivity training as part of its settlement with Gustavo Alvarez, the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park resident who sued the city after he was violently arrested in February 2018.
The settlement also requires Sgt. Wayne Benitez, the supervising officer who slammed Alvarez on the hood of the car during the arrest and was later seen on surveillance video making fun of Alvarez, to write an apology letter to Alvarez, his attorney, Cody Salfen, told the Weekly. Benitez retired from the department in September.
The City Council discussed Alvarez's case against the city on Monday night but gave little indication at the meeting that it had approved any kind of settlement. Mayor Eric Filseth said immediately after the closed session that the council took "no reportable action."
City Attorney Molly Stump told the Weekly that the "settlement documentation is in process," which is why there was no reportable action at the Monday meeting.
While Palo Alto officials have consistently declined to discuss the incident, citing pending litigation, the city did release a statement Wednesday confirming the settlement. The council has settled the claims to "minimize the burden and expense of federal litigation," according to the statement.
The February confrontation that sparked the lawsuit was captured on Alvarez's home surveillance camera. The footage showed Officer Christopher Conde trying to get Alvarez to come out of his mobile home; Alvarez repeatedly refused. Conde was later joined by more officers, including Benitez and Agent Thomas DeStefano. The officers ultimately kicked the door in and, once Alvarez came out, the officers grabbed, handcuffed and pinned him on the hood of a car.
The video shows Benitez then grabbed Alvarez by the hood of this jacket, slammed him against the windshield and asked him, "You think you're a tough guy?" When Alvarez told Benitez, "I'm bleeding," Benitez responded, "You're going to be bleeding a whole lot more."
After the arrest, Benitez is shown recapping the incident to another officer and imitating Alvarez, who is gay, by raising the pitch of his voice.
The department arrested Alvarez on suspicion of driving with a suspended license, resisting arrest, possession of controlled substance paraphernalia and appropriation of lost property. All of these charges were ultimately dismissed by a judge.
Earlier this year, Gustavo sued the city in federal court, claiming that the assault by Palo Alto officers followed "prior, repeated and ongoing harassment by the Palo Alto Police Department." He alleged that the officers' conduct was motivated by "hatred and prejudice of homosexual males."
The lawsuit, which was filed on April 29 in the U.S. District Court in Oakland, also claims that the city has failed to adequately train its police officers and that its discriminatory policies are subjecting individuals "to serious and physiological harm."
The suit also claims that Police Chief Robert Jonsen and the city at large have "demonstrated deliberate indifference to this pattern and practice of constitutional violations, having shown deliberate indifference, by failing to take necessary, appropriate, and/or adequate measures to prevent the continued perpetuation of said pattern of conduct by their employees and agents."
The officers' behavior, the suit states, "demonstrates an existence of an informal custom, policy or practice, which tolerates and promotes the continued violation of civil rights of individuals by city of Palo Alto and city of Palo Alto Police Department's agents and employees."
The city confirmed in the statement that all sworn police officers will undergo training, which is scheduled for January. The statement from the city also alludes to Alvarez's criminal record, which includes a 2012 arrest for robbery at the former JJ&F Food Store.
"While the city and Police Department sharply dispute the vast majority of Mr. Alvarez' claims and have deep concerns about Mr. Alvarez's continuing criminal behavior, the city believes that this resolution is in the best interests of all involved -- including the Police Department, its police officers, and Mr. Alvarez," the statement reads.
The Police Department is also conducting its own internal review of the incident, according to the statement.
Salfen called the non-monetary components of the settlement "really positive" but criticized the department for continuing to employ all the officers who were involved in the incident. The only exception is Benitez, who was allowed to retire and draw a pension.
Salfen also called the city's dismissal of disputing most of the allegations against the officers "disingenuous."
"If they want to dispute what's on the video and try to justify what's on there, it wouldn't surprise me. But it's just a symptom of a department that doesn't take its obligation seriously."
Salfen said Alvarez continues to suffer from the effects of the February 2018 encounter.
"There is no amount of money that will ever give him back what was taken from him," Salfen said. "He lost his sense of peace and security, he lost his sense of his civil rights — the rights that are guaranteed to all individuals.
"He is still a resident of the city of Palo Alto and I'd like to think the city has a continued obligation to take care of all members of the community."