As Palo Alto prepares to enact police reforms, an idea that continues to gather momentum on the City Council is shifting some of the Police Department's workload from sworn officers to social workers and other unarmed employees.
But despite general support for the idea, council members and department leadership have yet to reach a clear consensus on what type of model to adopt. The agency is looking to join Santa Clara County's Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT) program, which partners a county clinician with a police officer for calls that involve mental health issues. Some members of the council, meanwhile, believe the city should go even further and explore removing certain types of calls from the department's purview altogether.
The council debated the various options during Monday night's wide-ranging discussion about police reform, a topic that has taken on increased urgency since the May 25 killing of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer. The topic will return to the spotlight on Nov. 2, when council members are set to approve various revisions to the department's use-of-force policies. The changes include an explicit prohibition on techniques that restrict blood and air flow to the head or neck and a more robust section on de-escalation techniques.
On Monday, the council wrestled with broader questions pertaining to police accountability and the department's service model. While the council didn't take any formal actions, council members generally supported expanding the scope of the independent police auditor and shifting some responsibilities away from armed officers.
Some of that is already happening. Assistant Police Chief Andrew Binder said the department is going through the process of being included in PERT and that it plans to have a clinician working with officers by the end of the year. He said the PERT program creates a model that many law enforcement agencies are turning to.
"It's the way to go," Binder said.
The partnership is far from certain, however. Because PERT is a county program, the city doesn't know what kind of resources it will receive.
"The only downside I can think of is the county has only so many slots and only so much money and only so many bodies they can give us," Binder said.
In addition to seeking PERT participation, the department is looking to hire more community service officers to deal with low-level calls. This includes responding to a noninjury car accident, signing off on citations, investigating parking violations or taking a report about a crime that had occurred.
"We have two right now and we're definitely prepared and going through the process of getting more on board, especially in light of these conversations," Binder told the council. "We see value in them and what they can add to the service to the community."
While council members generally lauded these moves, some argued that the city should consider more dramatic changes. Council member Lydia Kou suggested that the city further explore the service model used in Eugene, Oregon, where clinical professionals replace police officers in responding to calls that involve mentally ill or intoxicated individuals under a program known as CAHOOTS.
Council member Alison Cormack proposed shifting some 911 calls away from the police and toward the Community Services Department, which already has partnerships with various community nonprofits that provide social services.
"I'm not convinced that if we do have social workers, that they should be part of the Police Department," Cormack said. "In the same way as when you call dispatch you might get a fire resource, you might get a police resource, perhaps you would get social services resources. … I want us to think broadly about how that might be structured."
The Monday discussion marked the council's transition from the "data gathering" phase of the complex effort to a new stage in which the members identify gaps and flaws in existing policies and programs. The council is scheduled to formally adopt changes to some of these policies on Nov. 16.
One idea that the council has already discarded is the prospect of combining the police and fire departments into a single "Department of Public Safety." Several council members, most notably Greg Tanaka and Liz Kniss, expressed some enthusiasm for such a model in June, though after further exploration they concurred with staff that such a change would not be suitable for Palo Alto, which is one of few cities in the area that runs its own ambulance service.
According to a report from City Manager Ed Shikada, the Fire Department's medical transport service "does not lend itself to easily consolidating public safety line level staff."
Several council members also said Monday that they would like to expand the scope of the city's independent police auditor, OIR Group. Currently, OIR Group reviews only those use-of-force incidents in which an officer shoots someone, deploys a Taser or is involved in an incident that leads to a complaint. Palo Alto is also the only city on OIR Group's list of clients that excludes internal conflicts within the department from the auditors' scope, auditor Michael Gennaco told the council on Sept. 28.
While the council didn't specify on Monday what kind of changes it wants to see in the auditor contract, Vice Mayor Tom DuBois suggested having the OIR Group conduct annual performance audits on department operations, while Kou recommended having the auditor review the city's agreement with its police unions.
DuBois and Cormack had also previously supported expanding OIR Group's contract to involve more types of force, including incidents that don't involve formal complaints.
DuBois has also been working with Council member Eric Filseth on reviewing the department's policies on transparency and accountability. Both said they had some concerns about how well officers are complying with a department policy requiring them to report incidents in which they witness a colleague using excessive force.
Each alluded to the 2018 arrest of Gustavo Alvarez at Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, which led to a $572,500 settlement from the city. Surveillance footage from the arrest showed Sgt. Wayne Benitez slamming Alvarez's head on the hood of a vehicle. Neither he nor any of the other officers involved in the incident had reported that force was used during the arrest (Benitez, now retired, is now facing misdemeanor assault charges relating to this arrest).
"I don't think either of us believes there's a systemic culture of violence in our Police Department or anything like that, but the Alvarez case is concerning … Had it not been for this video that surfaced months later, no one would have even known about it," Filseth said. "We'd like to understand, how do we make sure that was a one-off thing and an outlier, and not something that goes on every week?"