Despite a year marred by a rash of car break-ins and two high-profile claims of police brutality, the Palo Alto Police Department saw several positive trends in 2019, including drops in assaults, burglaries and traffic collisions, according to its newly released annual report.
The Palo Alto Police Department's 2019 Annual Report highlights some of the crime trends and the initiatives that officers have been dealing with, including an increased focus on traffic enforcement and public engagement. The report also indicates that the department made fewer arrests and issued fewer citations in 2019 than it had in 2018, trends that the report attributes to "a decrease in calls for service compared to 2018, staffing and the cyclical nature of crime."
According to the report, the department responded to 29 assaults in 2019, the fewest number since 2015. That's down from 38 assaults in 2018 and 40 in 2017. The number of reported commercial and residential burglaries (not including car break-ins) hit its lowest point in at least a decade. The department responded to 179 burglary incidents in 2019, the only year in the decade when the number was below 200. In 2018, the city saw 234 burglaries, according to the report (the highest number was 332, in 2012).
At the same time, the number of larceny cases has surged, largely because of a recent spike in car burglaries. There were 1,724 incidents of larceny in 2019, up from 1,197 in 2018 and nearly twice as many as occurred in 2011, when 937 were reported. The number of robberies also went up from 30 in 2018 to 46 in 2019.
"While crime tends to be cyclical in nature ... one thing that remains constant is that Palo Alto is a safe city that continues to have a very low rate of violent crime per capita," the report states.
• View the rates of robberies, assaults, burglaries and stolen vehicles from 2010-2019 through this interactive chart.
The annual report also showed a significant drop in both arrests and citations from the prior year.
The number of citations, which spiked from 5,807 in 2017 to 8,245 in 2018, went down to 6,578 last year, according to the report. The number of arrests dropped from 2,602 in 2018 to 2,185 in 2019.
While the report provides an overview of each department division, it doesn't mention two recent complaints that the department received, alleging excessive force by officers. In November, the City Council approved a $572,500 settlement to Gustavo Alvarez, resident of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, after his surveillance camera showed a police sergeant slamming him into a car windshield during the arrest and later mocking Alvarez's speech.
The sergeant, who retired shortly after the incident, was required as part of the settlement to write a letter of apology to Alvarez. The terms also required the department to undergo two hours of LGBTQ sensitivity training.
The council also discussed in a closed session last week a complaint from Julio Arevalo, who also alleged that he was beaten by a Palo Alto officer near Happy Donuts on the night of July 9. A surveillance video from the donut shop shows police Agent Thomas DeStefano arresting Arevalo by pinning him against a railing and then bringing him to the ground before handcuffing him, fracturing his orbital bone (surrounding the eyeball) in the process. The council didn't take any reportable actions.
While the annual report makes no mention of the two cases, it notes that out of more than 2,000 arrests, Palo Alto police used force in only 18 incidents.
"This is a testament to the professionalism of our officers and their ability to de-escalate tense situations and gain compliance without using force," the report states.
The annual report also includes a section on the independent police auditor, who is charged with reviewing all cases in which a Taser is used, as well as complaints reported by citizens or generated by the department itself. The auditor, the report states, is in place "to ensure that the Department's investigations are conducted thoroughly and objectively."
The report neglected to mention, however, that 2019 was the first year since at least 2012 in which the city didn't publish a single audit. Historically, the city's police auditing firm, OIR Group, has been releasing two reports per year. And in December, the City Council voted to approve a new contract with OIG Group that explicitly excludes internal conflicts within the department from the auditors' review.
The report also underscores Police Chief's Robert Jonsen's recent efforts to engage the community. This includes the launch in 2019 of Advanced Police Academy, a course for residents who had completed the Basic Citizens Academy, an eight-week program for community members wishing to learn more about police work. In addition, Jonsen's advisory group made up of neighborhood representatives with whom he meets every other month helped the department's traffic team identify the locations where enforcement should be prioritized, according to the report.
"They discussed community concerns, specific locations, and the types of driving violations being observed," the report states. "This collaboration allowed for direct community input to the team's enforcement locations. The team provided feedback to the Chief's Advisory Group on observations, challenges and recommendations for each location."
From August through December 2019, the team visited six target locations 198 times and issued 651 citations, the report states. It also notes that the number of collision reports in all categories (which includes fatalities, injury, non-injury, bicycles and pedestrians) went down from 993 in 2018 to 836 last year.
"As we hire more officers to the Department's ranks, we intend to increase the size of the Traffic Team to more efficiently address traffic concerns from our community," the report states.
In his introduction to the report, Jonsen wrote that he expects the department to be "excellent in everything we do."
"I expect us to proactively enforce the law and to serve this special community with professionalism and respect," Jonsen wrote. "I expect us to positively engage our residents, business owners, and visitors whenever we can. I value accountability and take full responsibility to ensure these expectations are met."