Six months before the national outcry over racial justice pushed Palo Alto's elected leaders to talk about police accountability, the City Council made a decision that it would soon regret.
Prompted by city staff, council members in December 2019 voted to narrow the scope of the independent police auditor, OIR Group, so that the firm would no longer consider complaints filed by Police Department employees against their colleagues. The abrupt move also had the practical effect of derailing OIR Group's review of a complaint involving a former Palo Alto officer, who is Black, and a white department supervisor who allegedly used a racist slur in 2014.
Now, as part of its broader effort to address racial equity, the council is preparing to reverse the 2019 action and restore the auditor's oversight of employee complaints of discrimination, harassment or retaliation against uniformed officers. The council is scheduled to approve this Monday, June 14, a new contract that enhances the auditor's ability to investigate use-of-force complaints and deletes the sentence that the council inserted into the contract in 2019, which specifies: "Complaints and investigations of internal personnel or human resources matters are not part of these Independent Police Auditor Services."
The council's move to revise the auditor's contract comes at a time when police are facing increasing scrutiny following three high-profile incidents involving local officers engaging in violent behavior. This involves the violent arrests of Gustavo Alvarez at his home in the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, which led to a $572,500 settlement, and of Julio Arevalo at Happy Donuts, which also led to a lawsuit against the city. The city is also facing a complaint from Joel Alejo, who was mistaken for a kidnapping suspect and repeatedly bitten by a police canine in a Mountain View shed in June 2020.
Today, the auditor's oversight of police use of force is limited to Taser deployments and incidents that involve citizen complaints. The new contract would expand the scope to also include incidents where an officer uses a baton, chemical agent, a less-lethal projectile, a canine, a firearm or "any other force, resulting in an injury requiring treatment beyond minor medical care in the field." The auditor would also now have oversight over "informal inquiry reports" — relatively minor complaints that get quickly resolved through an internal review — and complaints of discrimination, harassment or retaliation by a uniformed officer.
Led by Michael Gennaco, OIR Group has been performing police audits for Palo Alto since 2006. It had traditionally released two audits per year, each covering a six-month period, though its once consistent schedule has become irregular in recent years, with numerous audits delayed by months because of the extensive review process for each report at City Hall before it is released to the public. Even though reports never name officers, city staff and the Palo Alto Police Officers' Association have expressed concerns about the implications of these reports on officers' privacy.
On April 13, as the council's Policy and Services Committee considered changing the auditor's contract, City Attorney Molly Stump said that in a relatively small department like Palo Alto, where some assignments are limited to just a few employees, the information in the audits can "lead to sort of putting the pieces together to create a concern that there is an ability to identify."
"That has been something that officers have raised through their union in the past in a strong way," Stump said.
City Manager Ed Shikada and Stump had also highlighted in an April report some of the downsides of disclosing internal complaints involving employees.
"If allegations, facts of the investigation and findings were to be publicly disclosed, individuals' lives and careers could be impacted, and the effectiveness of the City's complaint resolution system could be negatively impacted," a report from Shikada and Stump states. "The prospect of public reporting could discourage complainants from coming forward, or witnesses from cooperating fully with investigators when their colleagues and supervisors may be implicated."
The committee, however, agreed that given community concerns over police transparency — concerns that have only amplified since the Police Department moved in January to encrypt all radio communications — the auditor's purview should be expanded. Chair Lydia Kou and committee members Greer Stone and Greg Tanaka all voted to support expanding the scope of OIR group and restore its power to examine how the department handles internal complaints.
Barron Park resident Winter Dellenbach, who has criticized the city's 2019 move to reduce the auditor's scope, rejected the notion that having Gennaco examine internal complaints threatens officers' privacy.
"When police names come out, it's because the DA is considering charging them with crimes, civil lawsuits and things like that — but never from the IPA," Dellenbach said at the April 13 meeting. "Contrast that with human resources, with its hidden dark cave process, which is a total blackout, with no information or accountability to the City Council or the public."
The committee concurred. Stone, a former member of the Santa Clara County Human Rights Commission, said we are at a point in the nation's history "where public mistrust of law enforcement is at a high point." He also suggested that the men and women who enter the law enforcement profession embrace the scrutiny that comes with the position.
"When that trust is broken between the police and the people they were sworn to protect, the system fails," Stone said. "And moving toward greater transparency and oversight benefits us all."