The Palo Alto Police Department was hit this month with a fresh claim of excessive use of force, stemming from a July incident in which a man says he was violently attacked and falsely arrested by a police officer.
The claim was filed on Nov. 15 by Julio Arevalo, 23, who is being represented by Cody Salfen, the same attorney who represented resident Gustavo Alvarez in his own claim against Palo Alto police officers. The City Council agreed earlier this month to approve a $572,500 settlement in the Alvarez case, as well as to require all officers to undergo two hours of LGBTQ sensitivity training.
The claim names Agent Thomas DeStefano as the officer who allegedly attacked Arevalo. According to the claim, the incident took place on or around July 10 in Palo Alto. While it offers few details, the claim alleges that Arevalo's civil rights were "violated by multiple PAPD peace officers."
"I was violently attacked by Agent DeStefano and thereafter falsely arrested," the claim states. "Agent DeStefano included information in his report that he knew was false."
Salfen said Arevalo was enjoying a doughnut outside Happy Donuts in the Barron Park neighborhood when DeStefano approached him from behind. Arevalo then allegedly started walking away from DeStefano, who then allegedly grabbed his arm and pushed him onto a metal railing on the ramp outside the doughnut shop. Salfen said the railing has a sharp spike that created a huge laceration on Alevaro's chest.
Salfen said DeStefano then flipped Arevalo to the ground, causing his head to slam into the concrete, knocking him out and causing an orbital fracture.
"He suffered a shattered orbital bone, he suffered a concussion and the proper medical care was not rendered," Salfen told the Weekly.
He noted that after the altercation, Arevalo was taken to the police station and not the hospital. And while DeStefano reportedly wrote in his police report that he saw Arevalo sell drugs, Salfen said the allegation was not true and noted that the confrontation did not result in an arrest. The department instead deemed it a "detention" and did not file any charges.
Salfen said he had requested footage of the incident from a body-worn camera but the city has not yet provided it, notwithstanding the provisions of Assembly Bill 1421, which gives agencies 45 days to respond to such requests.
Salfen noted that DeStefano was also involved in at least two other recent excessive-force cases against the city. He was one of five officers involved in both the Alvarez arrest and the August 2013 traffic stop that resulted in an altercation between officers and Los Altos Hills resident Tyler Harney, who was a passenger in the car that was pulled over.
In the 2013 incident, two officers reportedly pushed Harney against a squad car while he was "convulsing uncontrollably" because of a seizure disorder. According to the suit, Harney was forced to the ground, after which time one officer put his knee against his back and neck while another one pulled and twisted back on his arm, causing injuries to his arm and shoulder.
While the city has denied the allegations in the suit, the City Council approved in 2016 a $250,000 settlement with Harney.
Salfen criticized the department for continuing to employ DeStefano, despite the recent incidents.
"It's kind of the new norm," Salfen told the Weekly. "Palo Alto has been dealing with claims arising from this officer's criminal conduct for years now. It's costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars and it's putting people's lives in jeopardy."
Arevalo also alleges in the claim that he was denied proper medical care. He is seeking $3.85 million in damages for "personal injury, emotional distress, property damage, other damages and the like.
Much like Alvarez, Arevalo is claiming that his civil rights were violated by multiple police peace officers in the department.
Arevalo filed his claim just three days before the City Council met in a closed session to discuss — and approve — the settlement from Alvarez, whose arrest at the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park was captured by a home surveillance camera.
The footage also showed the police supervisor, Sgt. Wayne Benitez, mocking Alvarez after the arrest by imitating his voice. As part of the settlement with Alvarez, Benitez must write Alvarez an apology letter. Benitez retired last September.
In agreeing to settle that case, the city has continued to dispute Alvarez's version of events. A Nov. 20 statement issued by the city states that the city and the Police Department "sharply dispute the vast majority of Mr. Alvarez' claims and have deep concerns about Mr. Alvarez' continuing criminal behavior."
The resolution, according to the statement, reflects the city's belief that it is "in the best interests of all involved." It is in the process of its own internal investigation of the incident, according to the statement.
The city has similarly declined to comment on the new claim from Arevalo, citing a policy of not commenting on pending litigation.