Facing calls for police reforms in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, City Manager Ed Shikada announced Thursday that Palo Alto officers will be prohibited from using neck holds to restrain individuals.
Shikada is also proposing that the city appoint a committee, which would include members of Police Chief Robert Jonsen's citizen advisory group as well as other stakeholders, to review existing Palo Alto Police Department policies and their consistency with the "8 Can't Wait" platform, which aims to reduce police force.
The city's decision this week to stop allowing the "carotid control hold" — a grappling technique in which an officer presses the carotid arteries on either side of a person's windpipe to restrict blood flow to the brain — is the first policy change the Palo Alto Police Department has undertaken in response to a recent wave of protests demanding racial justice and police accountability. In banning the tactic, Palo Alto is following the lead of other police departments, including those in San Diego, Los Angeles and Phoenix, who adopted similar bans, and of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who recently announced that state police will no longer be trained to use in the method.
Prior to the change, the department's policy manual stated that the carotid control hold "may be effective in restraining a violent or combative individual," but only allowed those officers who were trained to use the tactic to use it. Shikada's report notes that the department changed its policy on June 9 to prohibit the use of the carotid control hold.
The report offers few hints of other policies that may be revised to improve police accountability. It does not address the department's long-standing pattern of declining to release footage from police body cameras, even despite the passage of Assembly Bill 1428. It also does not address the occasional incidents in which officers fail to turn their cameras on or recent cases in which officers appeared to have used excessive force, notwithstanding the "8 Can't Wait" policy that departments "require de-escalation."
One such incident is detailed in a newly released report from independent police auditors Michael Gennaco and Stephen Connolly, who reviewed a case from 2018 in which officers arrested a man on charges of domestic violence. The man later complained that officers used excessive force against him. During that incident, two officers were conducting interviews outside the house when a third officer arrived and began to walk into the house. When a man "politely and repeatedly" asked the officer not to go inside, the officer reportedly refused and then grabbed the man and told him he was detained.
Gennaco found that one of the officers who was conducting an interview didn't activate his camera, which the audit noted resulted in "important information for the underlying criminal investigation not being captured." The officer who used force did have his camera on. Video footage suggested the officer mischaracterized the encounter when he claimed that the man was being "irate" and posed a security threat before he was detained. Gennaco, who reviewed the video, said the man was "quite courteous" and surmised that the officer used force because he found the man's request that he leave the house a "bothersome challenge to his authority."
Gennaco concluded that the officer who came in late and who used force should have taken a "backup" role and allowed the other two officers to continue their interviews, which appeared to have been going well.
"Instead, by becoming the center of attention, (the officer) interrupted the interview and began a level of escalation that resulted in the use of force by all three officers," Gennaco wrote.
The incident isn't the only recent case in which Palo Alto officers have been accused of using excessive force. In the 2018 arrest of Gustavo Alvarez, which resulted in the city approving a $572,500 settlement, Alvarez is already restrained by four officers before the arresting sergeant slams him into a car windshield. And surveillance footage from the 2019 arrest of Julio Arevalo in front of Happy Donuts shows Arevalo offering little resistance as he is pressed against a railing by an officer and then slammed to the ground.
Prior to passing a resolution on June 8 supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, the City Council hasn't taken any actions to address incidents of excessive force or the department's failure to respond to requests for information. Even after they approved a $572,500 settlement with Alvarez in a closed session last year, council members didn't publicly disclose the settlement at the meeting and only acknowledged it later, after inquiries from various news organizations.
And while dozens of residents urged the council last week to fire the officer who was involved in three use-of-force cases (two of which have already led to settlements) and to address the recent allegations that a high-ranking officer used a racial slur in talking to another officer, who is black, council members have not taken any public actions or issued any statements regarding these incidents. The council's only significant action pertaining to police policies in the past year has been to reduce the scope of independent police audits so that they no longer capture internal conflicts within the department.
The December action came several months after Gennaco reviewed the incident involving the racial slur but was asked by the city not to release the review. The council then approved the policy, thus ensuring that the review of the incident would not be publicly disclosed in the future but would be classified as a human resources matter.
While the council has been content to largely stay silent on police misconduct and defer all decisions to city staff, Shikada's proposed framework could bring some of these discussions into the open. Meetings of the "8 Can't Wait" advisory committee would be open to the public under the proposal and the council would receive updates about the progress of the initiative, as well as the city's other efforts to include diversity, every 60 days.
The report from Shikada states that the City Council's direction to undertake these efforts "highlights the need to act quickly on the important and urgent issues identified regarding policing policies and practices, while simultaneously taking the time and effort to look more broadly and deeply at the City as both an organization and a regional presence with community-wide impact, to address systemic inequity beyond policing."