Answering public calls for police reform, the Palo Alto City Council moved early Tuesday toward adopting the "8 Can't Wait" platform and began to debate a more fundamental question: Should the city even have a Police Department?
During a wide-ranging discussion that followed weeks of protests over the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody, the council agreed to hear monthly reports on topics such as police hiring, data analysis and the department's transparency and accountability policies, and to pursue an art project that honors the Black Lives Matter movement near City Hall.
In addition to these near-term ideas, the council also signaled its desire to consider a much dramatic, long-term proposal: combining its police and fire agencies into a single Department of Public Safety. That model is currently used in Sunnyvale. Billed as the largest integrated public safety department in the country, the Sunnyvale agency combines the functions of police, fire and emergency medical services, with officers trained in all three services.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss said one great advantage of this model is that it allows the community to see the different aspects of each officer.
"We tend to see our police as maybe great if you need protection, but you don't see them positively if you've just been pulled over or if you've just done something where you're unfortunately in handcuffs in the back of a car," Kniss said. "There are many aspects of our police that are somewhat frightening to people.
"Firefighters are just the opposite. Everyone likes firefighters, and they are like EMS as well."
Councilman Greg Tanaka noted that the switch also would allow the city to save money by combining the leadership roles of the three departments into one. He called the proposal "very intriguing and very attractive."
The idea is unlikely to be adopted any time soon. The council's vote means staff will return at a later date for a study session to discuss the pros and cons of combining public safety services. Councilman Eric Filseth framed it as a way to explore best practices for policing.
"We have one of the most educated, best trained police departments in the state of California," Filseth said. "It seems to me we ought to be looking for best practices on how we do everything."
Numerous public speakers pushed back against this characterization and pointed to recent incidents involving police officers violently arresting residents, including the July 2018 arrest of Gustavo Alvarez at the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park. The council last year approved a $572,500 settlement with Alvarez. The department is now the subject of an FBI investigation over the incident, according to a report by NBC Bay Area (Police Chief Robert Jonsen and City Attorney Molly Stump declined to confirm the investigation when asked about it on Monday night).
For the second straight week, numerous speakers called on the city to fire Agent Thomas DeStefano, who was involved in three use-of-force incidents that led to complaints (two have already prompted settlements), and to revoke the pension of Sgt. Wayne Benitez, who was involved in the Buena Vista arrest.
One speaker, Robert Vetter, argued that Palo Alto is a town built on systemic racism, which still exists today. He criticized the culture of the police department and urged the City Council to address past practices, like redlining, that have exacerbated community inequalities.
"Whether or not we are directly responsible for it, it's our job now to try to fix it and to reckon with that," Vetter said. "Every minute we're not doing that is contributing to further inequity in this town."
Resident Dhara Yu cited the FBI investigation and said she hopes the city and the department are "acting with the appropriate level of urgency."
"I hope something as serious as this would motivate the city to provide something better than these vague platitudes we've seen so far," Yu said.
While the conversation about the department's long-term future will unfold over the coming months, the council is hoping to make faster progress on some of the other reforms, including adopting the policies in the "8 Can't Wait" campaign. The policies are: ban chokeholds and strangleholds, require de-escalation, require warnings before shooting, require officers to exhaust all alternatives before shooting, require officers to intervene and stop excessive force when used by other officers, ban shooting at moving vehicles, require a use-of-force continuum and require comprehensive reporting.
While the department already has policies that largely mirror those in "8 Can't Wait," (it remedied the biggest discrepancy last week, when it banned officers from using neck holds) several recent incidents and police audits suggest that some of the policies pertaining to de-escalation and intervening aren't always followed.
The Alvarez incident, for example, was not reported as a use-of-force incident but only became publicized because Alvarez captured it through his home surveillance system. Even though the department uses both body cameras and vehicle cameras to ensure accountability, officers don't always turn the cameras on and the footage rarely gets released to the public, notwithstanding recent state laws that aim to promote police transparency.
The City Council assigned the task of making sure the department follows the "8 Can't Wait" policies to its Human Relations Commission, which was also charged with putting together a report on the history of Palo Alto's black community. The council also directed the Public Art Commission to explore honoring diversity and supported a community effort to paint "Black Lives Matter" or a similar message near City Hall.
"We are really just scratching the surface," said Mayor Adrian Fine, who made the motion to pursue the various efforts. "It's unfortunate that we are dealing with it after tragedies, but it's nonetheless supremely important so I think we have to continue asking these questions."