After lawsuits and calls for his firing, police agent exits | October 1, 2021 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - October 1, 2021

After lawsuits and calls for his firing, police agent exits

City declines to say whether Thomas DeStefano departed voluntarily

by Gennady Sheyner

A Palo Alto police officer who has been named in several lawsuits, including one stemming from his violent arrest of resident Julio Arevalo in front of the Happy Donuts store on El Camino Real in 2019, is no longer working in the Palo Alto Police Department, the Weekly has learned.

The city would not state whether Agent Thomas DeStefano left willingly, was fired or was asked to resign, claiming that doing so would violate state law. The Weekly has discovered, however, that his last day of work in Palo Alto was Sept. 7 and that he was one of seven police officers who have left the department since June.

The list of recent departures from the Police Department also includes police Agent Christopher Moore, who is one of five officers who filed a lawsuit against the city over the Black Lives Matter mural that the City Council commissioned last year and that included an image of Assata Shakur, a former member of the Black Liberation Army who was convicted of shooting a state trooper in 1972.

Other officers who have left the department since June include Sgt. DuJuan Green, a former school resource officer, and officers Matthew Hubbard, Daniel Seghetti, Jason Wunder and Daniel Ortiz.

The departures come at a time when the city is in the midst of instituting police reforms and as it is preparing for negotiations over a new contract with its largest police union, the Palo Alto Peace Officers' Association. As part of a broad initiative on racial equity and police accountability that kicked off in the spring of 2020, Palo Alto had updated the police department's use-of-force policies to emphasize deescalation and to ban techniques that restrict air flow.

Concurrently, state lawmakers are moving ahead with their own police reforms, an effort that hit a major milestone Thursday when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 2 into law. The legislation, which was authorized by Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, creates a decertification process for police officers who engage in serious misconduct (see sidebar).

As it's exploring further reforms, including programs that would send medical professionals to respond to certain police calls, Palo Alto also is confronting two separate lawsuits from individuals who allege that they have been victims of police brutality. One case involves Joel Alejo, who was repeatedly bitten by a Palo Alto police dog while he was in a shed in Mountain View, an incident that was captured by body cameras.

The other involves Arevalo, who fractured a facial bone after DeStefano slammed his head on the ground during the arrest in Barron Park, an incident that was captured on a surveillance video.

The Arevalo arrest wasn't the first high-profile incident that involved DeStefano and that led to a lawsuit. In 2013, DeStefano was one of the officers involved in the arrest of Los Altos Hills resident Tyler Harney, who reportedly suffered a seizure during a traffic stop in which he was a passenger. According to the lawsuit, DeStefano and another officer forcefully detained Harney, with one of them putting his knee against Harney's back and neck, and another one pulled his arms, causing injuries. The city settled the case in 2016 for $250,000.

DeStefano also was involved in the violent arrest of Gustavo Alvarez at the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park in February 2018, an incident that led to a $572,500 settlement from the city. Surveillance footage from the arrest shows DeStafano approaching Alvarez's house, with his gun drawn and screaming instructions for Alvarez to come out. He later helps pin Alvarez to the hood of a car, where he is handcuffed, and then watches as another officer, Sgt. Wayne Benitez, slams Alvarez's head on the windshield — a use of force that was left out of the police report in apparent violation of department policy.

DeStefano also faced disciplinary action over an off-duty incident in San Jose in which he reportedly hit a neighbor's car and then repeatedly lied to investigators about it. According to the police report, a witness heard the crash and then saw DeStefano exit the vehicle. Palo Alto's internal investigation concluded that DeStefano violated policy by leaving the scene of the accident without contacting his neighbor or taking responsibility and that he violated additional policies pertaining to engaging in conduct "unbecoming" of the department and to providing inaccurate and incomplete notification to a supervisor after the incident, according to a 2017 report from Palo Alto's independent police auditor, OIR Group. While the audit does not identify officers in the cases it reviews, the police report from San Jose identifies DeStefano as the party involved in the hit-and-run incident.

As a result of the incident, DeStefano was placed on administrative leave, pleaded guilty to an infraction and returned to full duty about five months after the incident, according to the 2017 report from OIR Group. The auditors concluded that his misconduct was "quite possibly greater" than what Palo Alto attributed to him and "may have well included drunk driving and knowingly making false statements to the handling law enforcement agency."

Calls for DeStefano's firing have grown louder since the May 2020 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, an incident that prompted demonstrations against police brutality across the nation. Dozens of residents spoke out at council meetings urging the city to fire officers involved in recent incidents involving use of force and nearly 4,000 signed an online petition titled, "Fire and fine Agent Thomas DeStefano."

While City Manager Ed Shikada would not say whether DeStefano's departure was voluntary, the city also is preparing for possible lawsuits relating to two separate employee matters. On Sept. 20, the City Council met in a closed session to discuss two matters that pertain to "arbitration of employee discipline."

City Attorney Molly Stump declined to provide any information about these two cases, which are listed on the agenda under the heading of "potential litigation." The state law that is cited to justify the closed session pertains to matters in which "a point has been reached where, in the opinion of the legislative body of the local agency on the advice of its legal counsel, based on existing facts and circumstances, there is a significant exposure to litigation against the local agency."

TALK ABOUT IT

There's a discussion going on about this news: Share your opinion by going to Town Square, the community forum at PaloAltoOnline.com/square.

Email Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner at [email protected]

Comments

Posted by Local Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 27, 2021 at 7:43 pm

Local Resident is a registered user.

Sometimes reform requires the most problematic officers leaving. Officers who will not wear a mask or make best efforts to avoid use of excessive force should leave and today was a step forward for PAPD. My thanks goes out to the PAPD leadership and the remaining officers who embrace 21st century policing.


Posted by S. Underwood
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 27, 2021 at 7:55 pm

S. Underwood is a registered user.

There's a problem whenever folks are not saying the truth out loud, as clearly and completely as possible.


Posted by No heat
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 27, 2021 at 8:18 pm

No heat is a registered user.

Embarrassing that this officer is leaving free and not in handcuffs.


Posted by felix
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 27, 2021 at 10:31 pm

felix is a registered user.

Thank you for informing us of this, Gennady. It’s important residents know that DeStefano no longer has force and authority here.
With Sgt Wayne Benitez also gone, PAPD is is doing better and so are we.


Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 27, 2021 at 10:47 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

It would be nice to know if he's leaving with full retirement benefits and how much these lawsuits are costing us.


Posted by White Senior fears Palo Alto Police
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 28, 2021 at 9:53 am

White Senior fears Palo Alto Police is a registered user.

Shameful if DeStefano gets his juicy pension. Not only is this not deserved due to his abominab le performance and consequent legal expenses that City of Palo Alto could have used for better purposes, the retirement fund for the city is considerably underfunded and having this bad actor drain the fund is upsetting to this taxpayer.


Posted by Duveneck neighbor
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 28, 2021 at 12:04 pm

Duveneck neighbor is a registered user.

I want to know what happened with the officers who stood by while DeStefano perpetrated his crimes: who said nothing; who reported nothing officially; but who knew damn well what they had condoned was wrong.

I want to know what is said in the 'chapter room' of the union, behind those closed doors, in private. Because privacy does not pertain, when crimes have been committed. Transparency is demanded. The Police Department is not some college fraternity, where hazing is condoned and suffering is inflicted and secrecy is the norm; yet, that is how our PD behaves, provably and unequivocally.

Finally, I want to know why police leadership, City management, and the Council have all failed to even minimally remedy this unacceptable situation. The people of Palo Alto do not want the status quo to persist; yet, the Chief has sought to restrict, not expand, the Auditor's role; hide, not make public, police communications; obfuscate, not clarify, police policies and procedures; reinforce, not change, existing yet reprehensible tactics and technology employed by the PD. The Auditor's role is barely where it was *before* the march of June, 2020. Yet somehow, we are to believe this represents a 'forward step', and a 'victory for social justice'. That, at least, is the narrative expounded by the City. I say, rubbish. We are no closer to justice today than we were fifteen months ago.

Eliminating seven 'bad apples', does not clean the barrel. We do not have a problem of a few bad apples, we have a systemic problem. And it is evident, the system has moved inexorably to protect itself, and not to protect the community.

How many more Floyd/Alvarez/et al. cases must we suffer and endure, before the truth will out -- and before the right will become the norm, rather than the starved and suffering child in the closet?


Posted by felix
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 28, 2021 at 12:34 pm

felix is a registered user.

There is a good question asked above - what has happened to the other Officers who stood around when Alvarez was brutalized by Sgt. Benitez but did try to stop it and didn't say or report anything? It took a year and a half for anyone to find out this happened - even the Chief.

We have to hope they are being held accountable and that the Independent Auditor of the police will be reporting on it to the council and public.

It should be understood that many members of our city council enacted very meaningful expansions of oversight by the Independent Auditor, and enacted substantial policy reforms to provide much more police accountability.

Note that it is not clear why all these Officers left the PAPD.

Is systemic racism solved in the PAPD? No. Is more to be done? Clearly. That said, this Council is to be thanked for substantial progress made. And let's extend support any good Officer who is working to change the culture in the PAPD.




Posted by Lynne Henderson
a resident of Mountain View
on Sep 28, 2021 at 1:23 pm

Lynne Henderson is a registered user.

I have refrained from commenting on any of this, as I moved out of Pal Alto in 2011. I don't know what happened to "Agent" DeStefano between 2009--when he drove all the way to Calaveras County and back to pick up my mentally ill then-spouse and drove him back to Santa Clara County and handled the situation well--and became an abusive cop. My guess would be alcohol addiction, but I have always appreciated DeSefano's assistance back then.
On the other cops--once Dennis Burns stepped down as Chief, Palo Alto seems to have reverted to the bad old ways of Lynne Johnson's "rule." (Do *not* get me started!)
And where is Palo Alto on the mistreatment of the woman in Baron Park who was having seizures and couldn't get medical care?


Posted by Pierce Jepsen
a resident of Stanford
on Sep 28, 2021 at 1:29 pm

Pierce Jepsen is a registered user.

Rather than defunding the PD, perhaps it is best to simply disassociate and discharge the bad cops.

Chances are they will just get another job in law enforcement somewhere else where the guidelines on proper and professional police behavior is not scrutinized or enforced.


Posted by Grateful
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 28, 2021 at 1:34 pm

Grateful is a registered user.

Was there any disciplinary action against Captain Zach Perron of the Palo Alto PD? He’s the cop who called a fellow officer a racist, derogatory name. This seems to have been swept under the rug since he’s one of the “good ol’ boys” of the PD. Where’s the follow-up story about this since it seems there were no consequences? He’s pretty high up there in rank, maybe that’s why he got away with it?


Posted by ALB
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 28, 2021 at 2:18 pm

ALB is a registered user.

The police unions are, at least most of them, designed to protect their fellow brothers in uniform. What is staggering is why has it taken so long for these rotten apples to leave the department? On a different topic why are so many Palo Alto police officers UNVACCINATED? The mindset to allow unvaccinated public servants to keep their jobs is unconscionable. The Police chief needs to grow a spine. The CM and CC need to proclaim and require ALL officers be vaccinated. Do not allow the bogus religious exemption. Thank you Gennady Sheyner for this important article.


Posted by MaryAnne Borgers
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 28, 2021 at 2:31 pm

MaryAnne Borgers is a registered user.

Biden's proposed Covid-19 vax mandate may force some recalcitrant police officers to either resign or get fired.

The SCOTUS may end-up having a say in this.


Posted by William Hitchens
a resident of Mountain View
on Oct 1, 2021 at 4:51 pm

William Hitchens is a registered user.

"Police Agent"??? Just who the heck wrote that headline??? This was a "Police OFFICER", who can bust me on a whim, and I hope that PA can strip him of his illegally earned pension and not give him one penny more. We mollycoddle cops and have given their unions far too much power to protect them from disciplinary actions, up to and including termination for cause. Time to go after their illegally "earned" pensions too.


Posted by Jennifer
a resident of another community
on Oct 1, 2021 at 8:42 pm

Jennifer is a registered user.

I don't blame police officers for leaving. Too may far left whack jobs that would rather support a cop killer than support law enforcement. If this keeps up, nobody will want to be a police officer, and we'll all be in trouble. So nice to live in a community that supports the police.


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