Palo Alto moved on Monday to further expand the purview of its independent police auditor when the City Council directed the firm to review every instance in which a local officer point their gun at individuals.
The addition is part of an expanded scope that the council unanimously approved for the OIR Group, which has been providing police auditing services for Palo Alto since 2006. Under the old agreement, its reviews have largely been limited to public complaints against officers and uses of force that involved a Taser deployment. The amendment that the council approved on Monday directs the auditing firm, led by Michael Gennaco, to also review any other use of force that results in injury requiring treatment beyond minor medical care in the field.
The council had previously decided that the new scope should include cases in which an officer uses a baton, chemical agent, a less-lethal projectile or a canine to cause injury. On Monday, it clarified that it should also include instances in which an officer points a gun at someone.
The council made the change upon request from resident Aram James, a frequent critic of police tactics.
"When a weapon is pulled, it's a traumatic incident and we need to know if there is a racial disparity in our city in the way the police do that," James said.
The council generally agreed, particularly after Police Chief Robert Jonsen said that incidents in which city officers point guns at individuals are relatively rare in Palo Alto, generally totaling a "few times per year." He noted that officers are already required to file reports when they point firearms, though up until now these reports have not been submitted to the OIR Group for review.
After James made his comments, council member Greer Stone and Vice Mayor Pat Burt both said Monday that they would like to see the pointing of a gun added to the auditor's scope.
"I tend to think that the pointing of a firearm is a threat of deadly force," Burt said. "If a police officer does that, it should be in a circumstance where it is entirely necessary."
Council member Lydia Kou agreed.
"In my view, a gun should never be out of its holster unless it's about their life," Kou said. "When it's out of the holster and starts pointing at anything, it should be something that should be reported."
Gennaco told the council Monday that while he's willing to review such instances, they tend to be a lower priority than other types of use of force, particularly those when an individual gets hurt.
"Compared to a baton strike, a Taser use, a use of a canine, in which a dog bites an individual — the withdrawal of a firearm is down the rank of importance with regard to things that the IPA should be seeing," Gennaco said.
The new contract also restores to the OIR Group its historic power to review internal department complaints that involve discrimination, harassment or retaliation by an officer. In December 2019, the council abruptly voted to strip that power from the auditor and relegate these complaints to the Human Resources Department, where they would be shielded from public disclosure. The move came just as the auditor was reviewing a complaint against a white police supervisor who allegedly used a racial slur in the presence of a Black officer, who is no longer in the department.
Winter Dellenbach, who has consistently criticized the 2019 change, urged the council to ensure that Gennaco retains his independence in reviewing police incidents.
"He can't be effective if staff or council will try to interfere with him doing this job," Dellenbach said. "It was done in 2019 and what we need now is a course correction tonight."
With the added scope, the council raised the contract amount by $32,500 for a total of $107,500. The contract will expire on Jan. 1, 2023.