Last year when the Palo Alto City Council requested a review of all cases in which an officer pointed their firearm, members agreed that such instances should not be treated as common tactics but rather as dramatic and potentially traumatic episodes.
A new report from The OIR Group, the city's independent police auditor, tracked five such incidents over a six-month period leading up to June, as well as a sixth one that occurred earlier but had not been documented until recently. While the report suggests that Palo Alto officers generally show "appropriate restraint," auditors found numerous discrepancies in the department's documentation of these instances.
The auditors paid particular attention to a recent incident in which an officer pointed a gun twice at a shoplifting suspect who crashed her car into a cruiser before speeding away from the scene. According to the report, an officer who was responding to an alert about a retail theft spotted a woman in a vehicle at a nearby parking lot and suspected her involvement. She exited the car while talking on her phone, then returned to the car and closed the door over the officer's objections, the report states.
The officer then unholstered his gun and, moving toward the driver's side, pointed it at her. He then backed away as she placed her car in reverse, struck the patrol car, switched to forward gear, went over a curb and drove away. The officer turned on his vehicle's lights and sirens, pursued her and ultimately observed her vehicle rolling over. He approached her again with his firearm pointed at her but she ignored him and began to run away, the report states. He chased her and tackled her to the ground before other officers arrived and helped him handcuff her, according to the report.
The auditors didn't take any issues with the officer's use of his firearm but noted that he had initially failed to disclose that in his report and was ordered by a supervisor to write a supplemental report. The supervisory memorandum on this incident also failed to note that the officer drew his weapon twice, though the officer ultimately included that detail in his supplemental report.
Auditors also found discrepancies in the way in which police supervisors documented the vehicle chase. The supervisory memo noted that the officer failed to stop at one controlled intersection, while a review of the dashboard footage from the police vehicle showed him running through six such intersections. The cameras also showed the vehicle crossing into the opposing lane to pass two large trucks and then doing so once again later in the pursuit. The supervisor only noted that the police car crossed over to the opposite lane to pass one truck.
Furthermore, supervisors didn't review the officer's tackling of the subject, notwithstanding the fact that the officer reported the action and told a supervisor that he saw blood on the woman's hands after she went down. He wasn't sure if this was because of the tackle or the rollover accident, the report states.
The audit details five other cases that involved officers drawing firearms.
One case involved an officer who pointed a gun at a young man who reportedly brandished a firearm during a dispute at a grocery store. A police officer reportedly saw the man after he walked out of the store and detained him at gunpoint.
In another case, officers used a locator app to track a man who was reportedly involved in a robbery and assault in a neighboring city and found him in a stolen vehicle. After a foot pursuit, the officer caught the man in a parking lot and pointed his gun at him while ordering him to get on his knees. Subsequently, the man was taken into custody.
The third instance pertained to the same case and involved someone whom a police officer spotted walking away from the area of the stolen vehicle after the initial suspect fled the scene.
The fourth case involved a robbery suspect who was spotted walking along the freeway by an officer who then used his car for cover and pointed his gun at the man, ultimately arresting him.
The fifth case pertained to a person who, according to the police, was involved in several hit-and-run collisions and was ultimately spotted by an officer who then used his car to block the man's escape route.
The auditors concurred with the department's conclusion that each of these five cases was "consistent with police and training." They took issue, however, with one case in which an officer simultaneously unholstered both his Taser and his firearm and pointed both at a man while issuing commands.
"Because of potential for 'weapons confusion' and inadvertent trigger pull, this is considered tactically problematic, to the point where a specific admonitory reference is included in Department policy," the report states.
While the officer quickly holstered the gun, the auditors faulted the supervisors for failing to make note of what they called a "tactical misstep."
The auditors disagreed with the supervisors' evaluation of an incident in which an officer was shouting profanities while pointing a firearm at a subject. While the supervisors concluded that this "terse and provocative language" was effective in gaining the subject's compliance, the auditors noted that the subject was already cooperating and was "lying down on the sidewalk and extending his arms – when the officer punctuated an additional command with a particularly harsh profanity."
As per the OIR Group's recommendation, the police department should encourage supervisors to treat the "pointed firearm review process as an opportunity for holistic assessment of officer performance." The group also said the police department should document and address issues where relevant. It suggested that the department "continue to scrutinize officer profanity and emphasize the limited nature of exceptions to the general prohibition."
The report calls the department's enhanced attention to incidents that involve pointed firearms "an important addition to its mechanisms for meaningful review."
"Public recognition of these events as a significant exercise of police authority has increased in recent years, and what was once treated as a routine tactic is now subject not only to policy limitations but to a new level of formal review," the report states.