BY SARA TABIN
Daily Post Staff Writer
Palo Alto Human Relations Commission Chair Rev. Kaloma Smith clashed at a council meeting last night (Aug. 24) with Assistant Police Chief Andrew Binder over the exact language the city should use to ban chokeholds by police.
City Council is trying to implement the “Eight Can’t Wait” guidelines, which are recommendations for police reform created by a group called Campaign Zero to reduce police brutality and killings. The guidelines gained widespread attention after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police on May 25.
The police department says aspects of the Human Relation Commission’s recommendations go too far.
One point of contention is the exact wording for the policy banning chokeholds.
The HRC says the city should explicitly prohibit any holds that restrict blood flow to the head like chest compressions and chokeholds.
“One of the major things people are saying in protests is ‘I can’t breathe’ and these holds are the holds that cause people not to breathe,” said Smith.
The police department wants to prohibit strangle and chokeholds, but not make it as far-reaching as a complete ban. Binder said a police officer in a physical fight with a suspect might accidentally break the rules if they fall onto someone’s neck or chest.
The differences between the two recommendations caused some confusion for members of the council. Councilwoman Alison Cormack and Councilman Eric Filseth both asked for clarification on the differences between the two policy changes.
Filseth said it seems to him that the HRC and the police are in agreement on substance but not the language for the new policies. He said he doesn’t understand the disagreement over the chokehold issue.
The council ultimately said they want any “intentional” holds that restrict blood flow to the head to be prohibited.
The council meeting was held on the Zoom platform, and more than a dozen residents called in to ask the council to go with the HRC’s version of the policies.
Stanford Law School lecturer Jamie O’Connell said the modified language is unnecessary because its hard to imagine a police officer would actually be fired if he or she failed to de-escalate when ambushed. De-escalation is apart of the “Eight Can’t Wait” proposal.
Several people said the department has a history of bad officers.
Palo Alto is currently being sued for $10 million by Buena Vista Mobile Home park resident Julio Arevalo, who said Agent Tom DeStefano violently arrested him last July, shattering the bones around Arevalo’s eye in the process.
Palo Alto settled a suit for $572,500 last fall that claimed former Sgt. Wayne Benitez slammed another Buena Vista resident on the hood of a car and mocked him for being gay. Benitez later retired.
Aram James, a retired public defender, said the council and Police Chief Robert Jonsen have protected Capt. Zach Perron who James called a “racist individual.” The Post reported last year that Perron used the n-word in a joke toward a black officer who later resigned.
James said the culture of the department needs to change, not just the policies. He said there is no accountability because District Attorney Jeff Rosen has refused to prosecute cops who break the law.
Rosen is currently reviewing Benitez’s case but has yet to bring about any charges. Rosen announced that he couldn’t charge Benitez in June and then said he would look at the case again.
Rohin Ghosh said police misconduct in Palo Alto reflects badly on the city. He said “Eight Can’t Wait” policies don’t go far enough.
James Hindrey said the police’s proposed changes to the HRC recommendations protect officers over the public. He said the police are not “the best of us.”
Three council candidates — Steven Lee, Cari Templeton and Rebecca Eisenberg — spoke in favor of the HRC’s reforms.
Councilman Tom DuBois defended the police department. He said Palo Alto officers are “highly professional” and not “known for extreme racism.”
Another point of contention was whether the city should completely ban shooting at moving vehicles.
Binder and Jonsen said this could put people in danger if someone in a car is trying to drive through closed city streets with people in the way.
Rev. Smith, the HRC chair, said the changes his commission is seeking are not radical and have been implemented by other departments. He said the HRC wouldn’t recommend policies that would put people or officers in danger.
“We are not inventing the wheel. In fact, we are at the back of the train right now,” he said.
Councilwoman Lydia Kou said she wants to make sure police can do their job because there could be terrorist attacks in Palo Alto because of the number of prominent companies located here. She said she is also concerned about police having enough techniques at their disposal to stop people on drugs with “phenomenal strength.”
Rev. Smith said Palo Alto is one of the richest communities in America with some of the least violent incidents. He said concerns about a drug issue that doesn’t exist shouldn’t drive the conversation about police reform that’s meant to protect black and brown people.
Another component of the proposed reforms is more de-escalation techniques for police to use instead of force.
Filseth said he wants to see more examples of what de-escalation looks like because it is a “buzzword” and he doesn’t know what it means.
City Manager Ed Shikada will work on the new police policies with the recommendations from the HRC and the department. The specific policies don’t have to come back to the council but the council asked to see them when they are done.