BY DAVE PRICE
Daily Post Editor
Palo Altans have reason to be concerned about a series of cases accusing the city’s police officers.
• On Nov. 18, City Council agreed to pay a $572,500 settlement after now-retired police Sgt. Wayne Benitez was captured on tape pounding the head of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park resident Gustavo Alvarez against the hood of a car. The tape also indicates Benitez mocked Alvarez for being gay. Benitez retired while the case was pending. The city has been silent about the three other officers who were there and saw the beating. Did they report Benitez’s assault of Alvarez? If they didn’t, were they disciplined? Alvarez, who will share the money with his lawyer, was arrested while his suit was pending for repeatedly burglarizing the Valero gas station near his home.
• Last month, another Buena Vista resident, Julio Arevalo, filed a $3.8 million claim against the city, alleging he was violently attacked by Palo Alto police Agent Thomas DeStefano on July 10 before he was booked into jail for being under the influence of drugs and other charges. Like Alvarez, Arevalo is represented by San Jose attorney Cody Salfen.
• DeStefano is one of the officers named by Tyler Harney in a police brutality suit that the city settled for $250,000. Harney said he was suffering a medical emergency when cops yanked him out of a car, pulled his arm behind his back and broke it during a 2013 traffic stop. At the time, police didn’t have body cameras, only cameras mounted on their vehicles. When Harney’s attorney tried to obtain the video from the police, he was told that the cameras from both cars had malfunctioned and there was no recording. When the attorney began to investigate the absence of police video by subpoenaing the manufacturer of the cameras, the city decided to settle the suit rather than let the attorney delve further into the issue of destruction of evidence.
• In August, council met behind closed doors to review the civil suit of Mahmoud Elsayed, who said Palo Alto police wrongfully arrested him at his Santa Clara home on charges of smashing a floodlight outside a townhouse that he owns and rents to tenants in Palo Alto in 2016. Elsayed denied damaging his own floodlight and said he had not visited his Palo Alto property at all that year. The DA threw out the Palo Alto Police Department’s case. Elsayed passed a lie detector test. Among the allegations Elsayed made was that he was singled out by the police because of his Muslim faith. The city and Elsayed have reached a tentative settlement, but it has yet to be approved by council. The amount isn’t publicly known. The defendants in Elsayed’s federal lawsuit are Benitez, police detective David McAlee, former Chief Dennis Burns and Capt. Ron Watson.
• On May 22, the Post reported police had concealed a 2017 investigation into Capt. Zach Perron’s alleged use of the n-word while speaking to a black officer and other department employees. The black officer, who won the police department’s Medal of Valor for rescuing a felon he was chasing, later resigned and joined another law enforcement agency.
This record is troubling. It’s time that the City Council tell the city manager to get the police department under control.
But it’s not entirely the fault of police or the city manager. The council has allowed one of its tools to oversee the department slip out of its hands.
In 2006, after a series of excessive force incidents, council decided to hire an independent police auditor, who would review the internal affairs reports of the police department every six months to ensure that officers were properly disciplined when they got out of line.
Council decided that the auditor would send his report directly to the city clerk, who would then give it to council and the public.
By selecting the clerk — rather than the city manager or city clerk — it would guarantee that the unvarnished report would reach the council and public without editing by others at city hall.
But in the last few years, these reports have been delayed by months as the police department, police union and city attorney review them before they reach council. The Perron report, for instance, was supposed to come out in June. It’s December, and we still haven’t seen it.
How bad are things in the police department? Council will never know if the police auditor reports are sanitized before they’re released.
If council wants to get ahead of this growing crisis in the police department, it should go back to the original rules of the police auditor system.
Editor Dave Price’s column appears on Mondays. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.