BY SARA TABIN
Daily Post Staff Writer
Former Palo Alto police Sgt. Wayne Benitez, who slammed a Buena Vista Mobile Home Park resident on the hood of a car and mocked him for being gay, will have to sign an apology saying that he “regrettably” lost his composure.
The city of Palo Alto announced Wednesday (Nov. 25) that it has agreed to pay $572,500 to Gustavo Alvarez’s lawyers over the Feb. 17, 2018, police beating, which was captured on Alvarez’s home video surveillance camera. The settlement was approved by city council on Nov. 18 and the money is due within 30 days.
In his apology, Benitez must say that he hopes the settlement allows Alvarez to move forward with his life. The letter will be signed by Benitez. Alvarez will be allowed to share it publicly.
The details of the settlement were agreed upon at a federal court hearing on Oct. 31.
Besides the money and the letter, the police department has agreed to conduct LGBTQ sensitivity training. The department will send a representative to the Napa Valley College Criminal Justice Center on Dec. 22 to learn about LGBTQ law enforcement. That person will come back and conduct a two-hour training with every sworn officer in January.
In return, Alvarez has agreed to drop the lawsuit.
Will he be charged?
The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office said in August that it was gathering information to decide whether to open an investigation into the incident, which could possibly result in charges against Benitez. That case has not been opened because the city hasn’t given the DA its report, said DA spokesman Sean Webby. Webby said Wednesday that the DA expects to get the report “soon.”
The lawsuit was filed in April and heated up in July when Alvarez’s attorneys, Cody Salfen and Samuel Gordon of San Jose, released to the media a video showing Benitez slamming Alvarez’s head on the hood of a car outside Alvarez’s home.
Just before slamming his head, Benitez is heard saying, “So you think you’re a tough guy?”
The video also includes a voice, believed to be that of Benitez, mocking Alvarez because he’s gay.
Police say they went to Alvarez’s home on Feb. 17, 2018, because an officer thought Alvarez had been driving drunk. In the video, officers tell Alvarez they will break down his door if he doesn’t come out of his house.
After Alvarez was arrested and booked into jail, the DUI charges were dropped and Alvarez was released. But Alvarez said he lost a tooth in the incident.
Salfen told the Post Thursday that “no amount of money” can undo the violence that Alvarez suffered that night. He said the Police Department does not care about people’s civil rights.
Salfen would not tell the Post how much of the money Alvarez will get to take home and how much the law firm will keep.
Victim’s ‘continuing criminal behavior’
The settlement is not an admission of guilt by Palo Alto or Benitez.
“While the city and Police Department sharply dispute the vast majority of Mr. Alvarez’s claims and have deep concerns about Mr. Alvarez’s continuing criminal behavior, the city believes that this resolution is in the best interests of all involved — including the Police Department, its police officers and Mr. Alvarez,” city officials said in a statement announcing the settlement.
Had the suit gone to trial, it’s likely jurors wouhave been told about Alvarez’s criminal history. In the past 20 years, he was the subject of seven felony and 11 misdemeanor complaints in Santa Clara County Superior Court.
Perhaps Alvarez’s most infamous arrest came in July 2012 when officers caught him rappelling into the now-defunct JJ&F Market through a broken skylight. But most of his cases involved drugs.
Benitez retired from the department while the case was pending.
The attorneys for Alvarez accused Benitez of failing to mention his use of excessive force in his police report. Soon after that allegation was made, Benitez was put on paid leave.
Rumi Portillo, Palo Alto’s human resources director, said Benitez’s last date of employment was Sept. 30. Portillo said Benitez did not enter into a severance agreement with the city.
In October, Benitez told the Post he was retiring because he was almost 62. He said the reporting on the incident has been one-sided but he could not give his side of the story because the matter was still under investigation.
Retired Judge LaDoris Cordell said on Wednesday that she’s upset Benitez was allowed to retire without facing real consequences for his physical conduct and homophobic remarks.
“Everything points to this sergeant being a really bad cop,” she said. “He’s going to walk away from the city of Palo Alto and we taxpayers are going to be paying his benefits.”
Cordell also said she is concerned that Benitez could get a new law enforcement job at a different agency in the future.
But Cordell said she supports settlements since they save everyone the expense of going to court.