Facing numerous allegations of excessive force by local police officers, including two that were captured on video, Palo Alto police Chief Robert Jonsen assured the City Council on Monday night that such incidents are extremely rare and that officers who cross the line will be held accountable.
But while his words appeared to have mollified council members, who generally refrained from asking questions about the two high-profile cases, several residents criticized Jonsen and department for its failure to take responsibility for the recent episodes. This includes the February 2018 arrest at Bueno Vista Mobile Home Park, which involved a police sergeant slamming a resident named Gustavo Alvarez into a windshield of a car, and the July 2019 arrest in front of Happy Donuts, in which an officer pushed Julio Arevalo against a spiked railing and then brought him to the ground, shattering his orbital bone in the process and causing a concussion.
In both cases, the men who were arrested accused the department of excessive force. The council approved in November a $572,500 settlement with Alvarez, which also required a letter of apology from the sergeant, who had since retired (in addition, all sworn officers were required to take LBGTQ sensitivity training). Arevalo filed a claim against the department last fall, seeking $3.85 million in damages. With the city rejecting his claim, Arevalo's attorney Cody Salfen told the Weekly that he plans to file a lawsuit in federal court against the department in the coming months for what he called a "brutal assault."
The Monday discussion on recent police initiatives was Jonsen's first public response to the highly publicized allegations. While his presentation was mostly focused on day-to-day police operations — including an overview of recent initiatives and the latest crime statistics — he acknowledged that his department has been subject to criticism because of several high-profile cases.
He also emphasized during his presentation that use of force is extremely rare. The annual report that the department released this month notes that of the 2,183 arrests that Palo Alto officers made in 2019, force was used in 18 incidents — a rate of 0.008%.
"I'm not naive to the fact that we've been subject to some very serious allegations over the past year," Jonsen said. "I want to assure you that I take these allegations very seriously and misconduct will not be tolerated."
Jonsen also said that most of the incidents that he had reviewed that included use of force involved individuals who were either under the influence or resisting arrest. In 77% of these cases, he added, officers relied on physical strength and did not use any weapons.
"I think our personnel do a phenomenal job in communicating with the vast majority of individuals that they have to apprehend to get them to the back seat without having to use force at all," Jonsen said.
Jonsen also highlighted the downward trend in most violent crimes, with the number of assaults dipping to its lowest level since 2015 and the number of commercial and residential burglaries dropping from 234 in 2018 to 179 in 2019.
While council members thanked Jonsen for his presentation, Winter Dellenbach, a Barron Park resident who led the effort to preserve the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, pushed back against Jonsen's assertions that use-of-force incidents are highly unusual. She alluded to a surveillance video of Arevalo's arrest in front of Happy Donuts, which involved him getting pressed against the railing and then pinned to the ground. The arrest in the video, Dellenbach said, "was simply unreasonable."
"This minimizing of the seriousness of use-of-force is an undermining signal that signals no improvement is needed," Dellenbach said after Jonsen made his presentation. "If PAPD was in couples counseling, the therapist would bust it for deflecting and for not taking ownership and responsibility. ... We cannot get better unless we get out of denial and can deal with this in really good faith. And I don't think you're there."
Jonsen also touted the department's efforts to improve transparency and accountability, including its recent purchase of about 60 body cameras for officers and police cruisers equipped with five cameras. He also cited Palo Alto's independent police auditor, the OIG Group, which is charged with reviewing all Taser deployments, citizen complaints and administrative investigations by the department itself. The department, he noted, is one of only two in Santa Clara County that uses an auditor (San Jose is the only other city that does so).
Last December, however, the council changed the rules for independent auditor by expressly precluding the auditor from looking into incidents involving internal conflicts within the department. That decision followed reports of a 2014 incident in which a white officer, Capt. Zach Perron, allegedly used a racial slur against another officer, who had since left the department. The auditor, in fact, did not release a single report in 2019.
While neither Jonsen nor any of the council members have addressed the 2014 incident, Aram James, a former public attorney and frequent police critic, suggested Monday that the city implemented the change to the auditor's contract expressly to keep that episode out of the public eye.
"He's talking about transparency tonight," Aram told the council. "This isn't transparent. This is five years of covering up the Perron scandal. Not one of you have the guts to say, 'Hey chief. When are we going to release that?'"
While council members refrained from asking Jonsen about the excessive-force allegations and the prolonged absence of police audits, they did ask questions about other notable trends, including increased traffic enforcement in key corridors and an influx of car burglaries, which Jonsen said is a regional trend.
The department's annual report showed the number of larceny cases, which includes car burglaries, spiking from 1,197 in 2018 to 1,724 in 2019. That's nearly twice the number that were reported in 2011.
Jonsen said most of these incidents are committed by organized groups from outside the area, with some coming from as far as Los Angeles. Palo Alto, he noted, is not alone in facing this problem. He cited recent episodes in Mountain View, where there were about 40 auto burglaries in a day, and Menlo Park, where there were 12.
"They are very sophisticated, very quick and they hit different neighborhoods, different areas very fast ... and they can hit 30 to 40 cars in a matter of moments," he said.
Mayor Adrian Fine asked about the department's recent ramping up of its traffic-enforcement efforts. Jonsen had created a two-officer traffic team in 2018. Last year, he added another officer to the team and solicited feedback from his advisory panel of neighborhood representatives about areas where enforcement is most needed.
Jonsen said the team visited six target locations last year 198 times and issued 651 citations. The city's annual report also noted that the number of collisions had dropped from 993 in 2018 to 836 last year. When Fine asked whether the city should expect the increased presence of police officers to change drivers' behavior, Jonsen suggested that it probably will have some effect on people passing through Palo Alto.
"The feedback I've received is it's very noticeable," Jonsen said. "When we went out to same locations 198 times, people tended to notice. You better stop at that stop sign or you're going to get ticketed."