As the Palo Alto City Council pivots from offering symbolic support for the Black Lives Matter movement to debating real reforms on Monday night, one question that the city has yet to grapple with is: "What should change look like?"
Council members offered little guidance on that point during their June 8 meeting, when they passed a resolution in support of Black Lives Matter and heard from dozens of residents calling for reforms to the Palo Alto Police Department. Some speakers criticized the department for recent incidents involving use of force, called for Police Chief Robert Jonsen to resign and asked the council to "defund the police."
Jonsen countered that the city's police department is already "very progressive" and that its existing policies already align well with those proposed in reform campaigns such as "8 Can't Wait," which was launched by the police-reform nonprofit Campaign Zero.
Council members generally agreed with Councilman Eric Filseth, who called the present moment a good time for "self-reflection" and to consider ways to improve police operations. Mayor Adrian Fine cited "8 Can't Wait" and former President Barack Obama's "Mayor's Pledge" (which asks mayors to review police use-of-force policies, engage communities to solicit diverse input, report findings to the community and reform police policies) as good places to start.
Many residents, including Rev. Kaloma Smith, who chairs the city's Human Relations Commission, and Greer Stone, who serves as vice chair of the Santa Clara County Human Rights Commission, also support "8 Can't Wait." Citing Campaign Zero, Stone told the council on June 8 that cities that have adopted all eight of these policies have had 72% fewer police-involved killings than cities that have adopted none.
"These are common-sense reforms that have been proven to dramatically reduce the amount of deaths caused by police," Stone said.
What would adoption of "8 Can't Wait" policies mean to Palo Alto?
Jonsen said Monday that the city's department is already "really closely aligned" with "8 Can't Wait," in at least seven of the eight areas.
A review of the department's policies and recent incidents offers a more mixed picture, suggesting some significant gaps between the department's practices and the policies recommended by the "8 Can't Wait" campaign. On three of the eight policies, the city appears well aligned. For another one, which pertains to chokeholds and "sleeper holds," the department's policy has been at odds with the campaign's recommendation.
On the remaining four, the department has policies that are largely consistent with "8 Can't Wait," though recent cases and police audits suggest that these policies have not been consistently followed by local officers.
The Palo Alto Police Department appears to be following the guidelines that "ban shooting at moving vehicles," "require warning before shooting" and require officers to "exhaust all alternatives before shooting."
The department's policy manual explicitly states that shots fired at a moving vehicle are "rarely effective" and directs officers to "move out of the path of an approaching vehicle instead of discharging their firearm at the vehicle or any of its occupants."
The policy also bars officers from shooting at any part of the vehicle in an attempt to disable it. The only time an officer is allowed to fire at a moving vehicle is when an officer "reasonably believes there are no other reasonable means available to avert the threat of the vehicle, or if deadly force other than the vehicle is directed at the officer or others."
That, apparently, is a rare occurrence. According to the department, no officer has fired at a moving vehicle in at least 25 years.
Similarly, the two "8 Can't Wait" policies that require warnings — and exhaustion of other alternatives — before shooting are captured in the department's policy manual, which allows an officer to use deadly force only in cases where there is "imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury" to themselves or someone else. It also allows deadly force when an officer is trying to stop a fleeing subject and believes there is "imminent risk of serious bodily injury or death to any other person if the subject is not immediately apprehended."
"Under such circumstances, a verbal warning should precede the use of deadly force, where feasible," the policy states.
While the department has been the subject of several complaints about excessive force, deadly shootings have been very rare in Palo Alto. The department reports only one such incident in the past 18 years, the 2015 shooting of William Raff outside of a group home in downtown Palo Alto by an officer. Footage of that incident, which was reviewed and released by the Santa Clara District Attorney's Office, showed Raff charging at the police officer while holding a kitchen knife and ignoring repeated admonitions by officers to drop the knife before the officer fired his gun.
The one area in which the department's policies have deviated from the recommendations of "8 Can't Wait," the Obama Task Force and other police departments is "carotid control," a grappling technique in which one person bends their arm around another person's neck, cutting off the flow of blood to the brain through the carotid arteries on either side of the windpipe.
In the aftermath of George Floyd's death several police departments, including those in Los Angeles, San Diego and Phoenix, have declared that they will suspend use of the carotid control hold. California Gov. Gavin Newsom also said that state police will no longer be trained to use this technique.
The "8 Can't Wait" campaign lists "Ban chokeholds and strangleholds" as the very first of its eight proposals for police departments. Allowing officers to choke or strangle civilians, the campaign's website states, "results in the unnecessary death or serious injury of civilians." Such restraints "must be banned in all cases."
Until this week, Palo Alto's policy on carotid control holds (or "sleeper holds") didn't go nearly that far. The department's policy manual states that proper use of carotid control hold "may be effective in restraining a violent or combative individual," though it restricts use of the tactic to officers who successfully complete training.
It also advises officers to limit carotid control only to those situations in which a subject is "violent or physically resisting" or in which they have "demonstrated an intention to be violent and reasonably appear to have potential to harm officers, him/herself or others."
The department further restricts use of carotid control hold when an incident involves a woman who is known to be pregnant, an elderly individual or an "obvious juvenile." But even in these cases, the tactic is not prohibited. The policy manual states that its use in these cases "should generally be avoided unless the totality of the circumstances indicates that other available options reasonably appear ineffective, or would present a greater danger to the officer, the subject or others, and the officer reasonably believes that the need to control the individual outweighs the risk of applying a carotid control hold."
On Thursday evening, City Manager Ed Shikada released a report that stated that the department revised the policy earlier this week so that carotid holds are no longer allowed.
According to the Palo Alto Police Department, there has only been one case in the past decade in which an officer employed the tactic — in 2016, when an officer tried to arrest an individual on suspicion of driving under the influence.
According to a report from the city's independent police auditor, the officer took the keys out of the ignition to keep the man from leaving and tried unsuccessfully to pull the driver out of his vehicle. Ultimately, the man got out of his car and began to approach the officer, who fired a Taser.
When the man kept approaching, the officer tackled the man and engaged in a "lengthy wrestling-style struggle" with him on the ground. According to the audit, the officer used a carotid hold in an effort to overcome the driver's resistance and got him into handcuffs just as backup officers arrived.
The auditor concluded that the carotid control hold "appeared to give (the officer) the final advantage that he needed to handcuff the suspect."
On the other four "8 Can't Wait" policies, Palo Alto's record is mixed. While the department has policies that are largely consistent with the campaign, recent incidents suggest that officers don't always follow these policies.
Two of these pertain to use of force. "8 Can't Wait" calls for departments to "require use of force continuum," which restricts the most severe force to the "most extreme situations" and creates "clear policy restrictions on the use of each police weapon and tactic."
The reform campaign also asks departments to "require de-escalation" and, where possible, to communicate with subjects, maintain distance and eliminate the need to use force.
But video footage from the arrests of Gustavo Alvarez in February 2018 and of Julio Arevalo in July 2019 shows officers making little effort to "de-escalate" the situation or to avoid using force. In the Alvarez arrest, which was captured by his home surveillance system, officers broke the door to his residence at the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park. One pointed his gun at Alvarez, who was unarmed.
Then four officers pinned him to the hood of a car and handcuffed him. He was already restrained when the arresting officer, Sgt. Wayne Benitez, slammed him into the car's windshield. When Alvarez said he was bleeding, Benitez responded, "You're going to be bleeding a whole lot more."
The video from the Arevalo arrest similarly showed an officer using force with little apparent provocation. The surveillance footage, which was obtained by Arevalo's attorney, Cody Salfen, shows Sgt. Thomas DeStefano arresting Arevalo near the entrance to Happy Donuts on El Camino Real. After pinning him to the railing in front of the donut shop, DeStefano appears to flip Arevalo to the ground. The 23-year-old Arevalo reportedly suffered a concussion and a shattered orbital bone and didn't face any charges.
DeStefano was also involved in the 2013 arrest of Los Altos Hills resident Tyler Harney, who reportedly suffered convulsions during a traffic stop. Harney later alleged in a suit that an officer put his knee against Harney's back and neck, while another one pulled and twisted back his arm, injuring his arm and shoulder (the city approved a $250,000 settlement with Harney in 2016).
Consistent with the "8 Can't Wait" campaign, Palo Alto Police Department already has a "duty to intervene" policy that requires any officer who observes another officer using force beyond that which is objectively reasonable shall "intercede to prevent the use of unreasonable force."
In the Alvarez arrest, however, none of the officers intervened. Furthermore, the use of force was not mentioned in Benitez's arrest report, despite department policy that states, "Any use of force by a member of this department shall be documented promptly, completely and accurately in an appropriate report."
Thus, while the department's policy is consistent with "8 Can't Wait" proposal to "require comprehensive reporting," both Alvarez's arrest and the council's recent actions on police audits raise questions about the city's commitment to transparency and accountability.
During the June 8 meeting, Jonsen highlighted the city's use of body cameras and argued that no other department has a more comprehensive video-capturing system. The department takes pride, he said, in having an independent auditor to ensure increased accountability.
Yet the department's actions haven't always followed the spirit of the "8 Can't Wait" policy on comprehensive reporting. The department has regularly fought requests for the release of video footage from police vehicles and body cameras. Police audits, which had traditionally been released twice a year, are becoming both more rare and more narrow in scope.
In March, the city released the first police audit since October 2018. And last December, the City Council agreed to change the city's contract with the auditing firm, OIR Group, to shield from review incidents that involve internal conflicts within the department. That move followed reports of a 2014 incident in which an officer used a racial epithet toward another officer, who is black. After OIR Group reviewed the incident in early 2019, city leaders reportedly asked the firm not to publicize that report as they began to change the rules to exclude internal conflicts from the auditor's scope.
Jonsen told the council on June 8 that hearing residents criticize the department was "rough." But even as he defended the department from public accusations, he said he believes that the police profession "can do better and must do better."
"Are we capable of improving? Absolutely. Are we willing to improve? Always. That is what we strive for each and every day," Jonsen said.