Police urged to crack down on officers' profanity | November 18, 2022 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - November 18, 2022

Police urged to crack down on officers' profanity

Independent auditors cite body-worn camera footage that captured officers cursing during incidents

by Gennady Sheyner

When Palo Alto police officers received a call recently about a man acting verbally abusive in an outdoor shopping area and later smashing car windshields with a metal water bottle, they were quick to respond.

They tracked him to a nearby hotel room, where he stood on a balcony railing and yelled that he had a gun, according to a report from the city's independent police auditor, OIR Group.

After trying and failing to engage the man in a calm way, officers proceeded to other tactics. One officer fired a pepper ball at the wall near the man, which apparently didn't do anything. The second one fired a Sage launcher, which emits plastic pellets, and hit the man in the buttocks, prompting him to dismount from the railing and surrender to officers.

The response was, by all accounts, appropriate to the situation. A police supervisor determined that the use of force was "reasonable and necessary," according to the OIR Group. The auditor also noted that a police K-9 at the scene had remained quiet and did not distract from the de-escalation efforts. The man was uninjured.?

But while the independent auditors praised the department for restraint and thoughtful tactical planning, they were put off when they saw footage of one of the officers who used force volunteer for the assignment by saying, "I'll f---ing light him up."?

The comment, the audit noted, was said in a "cavalier way that certainly would have played badly in the aftermath of a worse outcome."

The incident is by no means the only one in which local officers used profanities. The most recent audit includes a different incident in which police confronted, chased and wrestled a man who was allegedly ingesting drugs in public. A review of the incident referred to several uses of profanity. In one case, it was deployed as an acceptable tactic as officers tried to apprehend the man. In another, the comment was deemed problematic by supervisors because "it seemed more a product of frustration/anger than calculation." The officer reportedly received verbal counseling.

In a presentation to the City Council on Monday, OIR Group auditors Michael Gennaco and Stephen Connolly generally lauded the Palo Alto Police Department for its thorough reviews of complaints against local officers and for their willingness to revise and improve policies to address issues flagged by the auditors.?

Yet the auditors also raised concerns about salty language that occasionally gets thrown around during incidents, even if in most cases it is limited to interactions between officers. At a time when body-worn cameras are constantly recording nearly all police actions, such comments can cause an embarrassment to the department and the city if the footage is released, the auditors said.

"When you're wearing a body-worn camera all the time and you're constantly being recorded, there's a possibility that off-hand comments or things that are going to be said that don't always reflect particularly well on the officer or on the agency," Connolly said. "That is something we did notice on occasion in some of these cases and it's not anything that the department is not unfamiliar with."

The audit, which covers use-of-force incidents between January and June of this year, notes that even when a comment is not audible to the public — or to the subject of force himself — "there were instances of profanity that were nonetheless recorded, and potentially discoverable in future proceedings."

"In the heat of the moment, there may be a need or an interest in using that for command presence, to be more emphatic if you will, but after the handcuffs are on, after things are stabilized, there needs to be a de-escalation," Gennaco told the council.?

"And then you have an officer make an unprofessional comment filled with profanity, it could lead to an impression that the officer is angry or that the officer has lost control. Neither are good."

Connolly said that OIR Group has noticed a "significant improvement in the department's willingness to engage with that issue," a task that has been made easier by body-worn cameras.

"It took a while to get them to sort of take that seriously," Connolly said. "And sometimes it's not about disciplining the officers, just making sure it's acknowledged by supervision and addressed, whether it's performance counseling or whatever. It is something that the agency takes seriously."

The recent audit recommends that the department use "individual instances of questionable 'on camera' commentary or actions as a basis for reminding personnel of the importance of professionalism, particularly with regard to deployment of force."?

In his response to the recommendation, Police Chief Andrew Binder noted that the department has a review process to address policy violations or improper behaviors and agreed that those behaviors should be addressed with the involved officers.

Binder said that when a department review of an incident notices inappropriate comments, it brings the officer in and provides counseling, sets expectations and goes over the policy.

"Generally, from my recollection, we don't have repeated offenders," Binder told the council.

Council member Greer Stone, who used to work for the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office, said use of profanity can have repercussions beyond merely embarrassment. He recalled a case in which officers from another agency had spent about an hour searching a person's home and their conversation during the search was so over-the-top that his supervisor opted to drop the case rather than let the jury hear it.

"This goes beyond just embarrassing remarks that could be bad for the department, it can actually harm prosecution in the future. I'd like to see us be maybe a little more proactive in that instead of waiting to remediate, but glad to see that remediation is helpful," Stone said.

Another trend that the auditors flagged in both their audit and their Monday presentation is the growing role of mental health professionals in responding to police calls. While they characterized the trend as generally a positive one, their review suggested that the department could do a better job in documenting the involvement of clinicians in responses.

"As with every new situation, what we saw was that there's a potential for effective resolution of these cases by creating this co-responder model," Gennaco said. "But what we also saw is whenever there's a new process, there's a little uncertainty about how that's going to be documented."

The auditors recommend that the department provide written documentation of whether a clinician was called and, if so, what their involvement entailed. This would both help auditors review the department's actions and help the city evaluate whether more resources should be dedicated to the co-responder model.

"Any time you're trying to assess the validity of a new enterprise, you want to know whether more is appropriate or not," Gennaco said. "Based on our experience in Palo Alto and also in our experiences in other similarly-sized jurisdictions, we are very optimistic about the co-responder model."


What do you think? How serious a problem is profanity used by officers in the line of duty? Talk about this issue on Town Square, the community discussion forum at PaloAltoOnline.com/square.

Email Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner at [email protected]


Posted by Mark
a resident of Menlo Park
on Nov 16, 2022 at 10:22 am

Mark is a registered user.

Language is used to communicate. Sometimes profanity is very useful in uniquely communicating something. Police officers have incredibly stressful jobs and are commonly in emotion charged situations. Let them do their important jobs [portion removed.]

Posted by Wyn
a resident of Atherton
on Nov 16, 2022 at 10:53 am

Wyn is a registered user.

Men using profanity!! Unheard of!! A charge of witchcraft could apply here.

Posted by Ugh
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 16, 2022 at 10:55 am

Ugh is a registered user.

Agree with Mark- who cares if they’re swearing during moments of stress and potential bodily harm- a lot of people would be!

Posted by Forever Name
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 16, 2022 at 11:03 am

Forever Name is a registered user.

@ Mark. Agree 100 percent.

I challenge anyone doing a dangerous and difficult job, often in emotionally charged situations while protecting and serving, to hold themselves to an impossible standard of perfect decorum 100 percent of the time. Who could possibly say they've never cursed on the job? No one, ever! Our officers are under enough pressure wearing cameras 100 percent of the time without people picking apart their every word. Let our police officers do their jobs.

Posted by Hulkamania
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 16, 2022 at 12:43 pm

Hulkamania is a registered user.

They must all be former sailors as a Marine would never talk like that.

Posted by Consider Your Options.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 16, 2022 at 1:26 pm

Consider Your Options. is a registered user.

Language we choose shapes how we think and feel and affects others around us. Using profanity is a little like verbally punching someone in the face--a hostile act that is likely to escalate a situation and elicit hostile, angry response. As parents, we try to model courteous and considerate behavior. It seems to me that the good officers who enforce our community's laws (whose work I greatly value and appreciate) should model civil conduct and that includes civil language. Wearing the uniform is an awesome responsibility. It should command respect that is is earned through daily disciplined behavior.

My grandmother once heard me swear and said, "Your words and actions define you. Choose them carefully." Then she suggested five perfect adjectives that would have communicated better what I was trying to say and advised me to expand my vocabulary so I could choose civil language to express myself more thoughtfully. Sage advice.

Posted by Bill Bucy
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 16, 2022 at 2:04 pm

Bill Bucy is a registered user.

Oh, spare me.

Posted by cvvhrn
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 16, 2022 at 2:32 pm

cvvhrn is a registered user.

Seriously? Of all the problems we as a City and country face we are focused on the use of profanity? I am a huge proponent of body cams and could care less about some off hand F-bombs.

Posted by Chris C.
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 16, 2022 at 2:36 pm

Chris C. is a registered user.

I agree -- who cares if they swear. But if you read this article carefully, you'll learn that the auditor doesn't seem to really care about swearing either.

Instead, they are concerned that in the incidents where officers are swearing they are not *thinking*. The auditor appears to be highlighting situations where the officers are acting on reflex and emotion, in circumstances where they had the time and ability to take a breather and think. Given this it makes sense to train them on how to recognize these situations and do better.

Posted by Ryan
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 16, 2022 at 3:22 pm

Ryan is a registered user.

As long as they help me, they can swear as much as they want

Posted by Jennifer
a resident of another community
on Nov 16, 2022 at 4:47 pm

Jennifer is a registered user.

Is this really a priority? This is over the top, and micromanaging at its worst. Let the police be human. Some will swear, and some won't. Just like the rest of society. And that's okay.

Posted by MyFeelz
a resident of another community
on Nov 16, 2022 at 6:09 pm

MyFeelz is a registered user.

I once got 86'd from a store for using a cuss word. I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If it's a cop, it's OK. If it's a customer, it's not. To enforce rules on one segment of society without enforcing it on another segment of society is ... guess what the word of the day is today ... DISCRIMINATION.

We even have keystrokes now that are presumed to be profane. Like GFY (Get Free Yogurt). KMA (Keep Me Apprised). YGMD (You Get My Drift). Profanity is a just a perception. I think it's hilarious that we have an oversight committee studying utterances by cops on duty, yet we aren't allowed to hear them ourselves on scanners. The double standards we operate with here are amazing. Maybe the City is too afraid that everyone who broadcasts on a scanner hasn't learned how to talk without swearing?

Posted by kimmy
a resident of University South
on Nov 16, 2022 at 6:57 pm

kimmy is a registered user.

With all the daily crime in our city and we are here discussing profanity. smh smh . Further understanding now on why this contiues week in and week out. Shame on you guys for actually spending valueable resources and time on this. Pathetic

Posted by JR
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 16, 2022 at 8:50 pm

JR is a registered user.

Outrageous! The police should have just asked nicely -- "Excuse me sir, would you please stop abusing patrons, smashing car windshields, and hanging off the balcony threatening to shoot people".

Posted by Nancy the real Nancy
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 16, 2022 at 9:05 pm

Nancy the real Nancy is a registered user.

What's the next article? Why the cop didn't shoot the perp in the leg instead of the torso?

This is just one of the many reasons why its hard to hire a cop.

Anyone who has the authority to criticize a cop for swearing should have their authority seized.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 17, 2022 at 5:41 am

Resident is a registered user.

Palo Alto's "independent auditors" need to harden the f*ck up.

Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 17, 2022 at 6:50 am

Annette is a registered user.

Amazing. I agree with all but 1 of the above posts. We just elected a candidate who opened her campaign with a F-Bomb and now we are being critical of cops for cursing? We've been denigrating our discourse with curse words for quite a long time now; we can hardly claim the high ground here.

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 17, 2022 at 7:51 am

Bystander is a registered user.

I also am not a fan of profranity, but if it helps the individual police officer do his job then who cares? Certainly not me!

I am just grateful that we have a police department that gets at least some of the crime solved and hope that they can get the extra help they need to do more.

Posted by Helen Wilcox
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 17, 2022 at 8:13 am

Helen Wilcox is a registered user.

Using profanity and obscenities while speaking in private with other officers is OK but not when dealing directly with the public.

When interacting with the public, the police should be courteous, considerate, and even-tempered as they are representing the City of Palo Alto.

A polite world is a sign of a nicer and more civilized world.

Posted by Eeyore
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 17, 2022 at 3:14 pm

Eeyore is a registered user.

So, almost everyone missed the fact that swearing was secondary to potentially poisoning subsequent prosecutions.

Posted by SteveDabrowski
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 20, 2022 at 11:55 am

SteveDabrowski is a registered user.

@ Consider Your Options: "Wearing the uniform is an awesome responsibility." Anyone who has served in a uniformed service is well schooled in profanity use. My time aboard a US submarine during the Viet Nam war was a real learning experience in this skill, almost as good as High School.

George Patton was not only the richest man in the US Army, but clearly one of the most profane leaders, although history records Ike himself as having reasonable skill in this also.

The fact is most high pressure occupations have this trait in common (among men at least). I attended a three month course that forced us to complete the first year of the U of Florida MBA intended to help prepare future corporate executives of a major defense contractor. All individuals had been selected by the general managers of each corporate division and most already had advanced degrees, but this was a real stress test and after a month the level of profanity that took over among these professionals amazed all of us.

Posted by Truth Be Told
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 20, 2022 at 2:58 pm

Truth Be Told is a registered user.

"I'll f---ing light him up"

Pardon my naivete but what does that phrase mean?

To light a suspect's cigarette or to actually set someone on fire?

Posted by SteveDabrowski
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 22, 2022 at 3:22 pm

SteveDabrowski is a registered user.

@ Truth be Told: It means to shoot him!

Posted by Horst Mueller
a resident of Portola Valley
on Nov 23, 2022 at 8:12 am

Horst Mueller is a registered user.

> "I'll f---ing light him up"

> Pardon my naivete but what does that phrase mean?

> @Truth be Told: It means to shoot him!

^ This expression infers a police propensity and desire to fire their service weapons whenever possible.

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