BY EMILY MIBACH
Daily Post Staff Writer
Would things improve in Palo Alto if the city moved to a system similar to Sunnyvale’s, where police, firefighters and EMTs are in the same department and rotate their jobs?
That was one of many ideas floated by residents and the city council last night (June 15) during the council’s most recent conversation in response to the surge of interest in the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss suggested that the council look at Sunnyvale’s Department of Public Safety as a potential model for Palo Alto’s police force.
Kniss said she became somewhat familiar with that city’s approach to policing while she was a county supervisor. She said the advantage of having a public safety office set up like that would be so the employees get a sense of what the others do and how they’re seen by the community.
Kniss said she brought up the idea because it’s “time to go and do something really dramatic.”
“Otherwise we will so what is always done, where we will in some way form a committee in an attempt to change hearts and minds when we don’t change the internal structure of public safety,” Kniss said.
Council asked City Manager Ed Shikada and Police Chief Robert Jonsen to take a look at the Sunnyvale model and those used by other successful police departments and bring back a report to council.
Council said it also wanted to know more about Eugene, Oregon’s CAHOOTS (Crisis Assitance Helping out on the Streets) program, where a duo of a mental health professional and a medic go out to help people in mental crisis situations.
According to a report by CBS, CAHOOTS responds to 20% of calls the city’s police department gets.
The council asked questions of Shikada and Jonsen well past the midnight hour about police and the department’s regulations on things.
“I think to some degree this shows our lack of understanding of this important function in the city,” Fine said. “It’s unfortunate we are dealing with this after tragedies, but nonetheless it’s extremely important.”
Council to learn about the Police Department
The discussion showed council members had gaps in their knowledge about the police department. For instance, Councilwoman Lydia Kou wanted to know who the parties were in a police union contract. She was told it was between the city and the police union, representing the officers.
Due to the lack of knowledge about the department, some council members suggested a study session on the Police Department. Ultimately, the council decided to appoint a series of ad hoc committees of council members that will look into the police department and then report back to the rest of the council.
The council also discussed having the city’s Public Art Commission decide how to get “Black Lives Matter” painted in the city as soon as possible, and to also work on the city getting another public art piece honoring diversity.
The council also decided to have the Human Relations Commission lead the city’s response to the “Eight Can’t Wait” campaign, which are eight recommendations from the anti-police-brutality group Campaign Zero, whose founders include Black Lives Matter activists. The eight ideas include banning chokeholds and prohibiting cops from shooting at moving vehicles.
The commission will also create a report on the history of black and brown residents in Palo Alto. Councilman Greg Tanaka suggested that Asians shouldn’t be overlooked because of their growing numbers. But Kou opposed the idea, saying, “Please don’t dilute it.”
Council also heard from nearly 20 residents about how they want to see the city pick up the “Eight Can’t Wait” principles, and again called for the firing of Capt. Zach Perron and Officer Tom DeStefano. Some also said that former Sgt. Wayne Benitez ought to lose his pension.
The city paid $250,000 to settle claims against DeStefano for breaking a man’s arm during a traffic stop in 2013. A Buena Vista Mobile Home Park resident, Julio Arevalo, has named DeStefano in a $3.8 million claim alleging police brutality during an arrest last year.
The Daily Post reported last year that Perron used the n-word in 2014 to make a joke to a black officer who has since left the department. An investigation into the incident was kept from the public and Perron was promoted from lieutenant to captain.
Benitez allegedly slammed Buena Vista resident Gustavo Alvarez’s head into a car and mocked him for being gay. The city paid $572,500 to settle the suit. Benitez retired during the litigation. District Attorney Jeff Rosen has declined to prosecute Alvarez, saying the statute of limitations has expired. But NBC Bay Area reported Thursday that the FBI is investigating the case.
Jonsen suggested the report about the FBI investigation was correct. When asked by Kou about the FBI’s involvement, Jonsen said, “I guess it’s not a secret.” Then City Attorney Molly Stump interrupted and said the investigation cannot be discussed “at all.”
At the last council meeting where the police department was discussed, Mayor Adrian Fine said speakers couldn’t mention the names of individual city employees. But this time, he didn’t object to speakers mentioning their names.