The Palo Alto Police Department is revising its policy on driving multiple suspects in the same police cruiser after a woman filed a complaint alleging that she was improperly touched by a man with whom she was sharing a back seat en route to jail.
The incident, which was confirmed by video footage from the police car, occurred in the fall of 2013 but came to light this week in a newly released report from Independent Police Auditor Michael Gennaco.
While the report found that the arresting officers in this case didn't do anything wrong and that the department's internal investigation was "objective and thorough," it faulted the police supervisor for violating the department's policy in allowing the two suspects to share the same back seat. The man who was arrested on probation violation was ultimately convicted of battery because of the groping incident.
According to Gennaco's report, the two arrests took place in the early morning hours about 20 minutes apart. The man was nabbed for violating probation after he allegedly tried to flee from a Palo Alto officer.
After making that arrest, police went on to investigate a complaint about a woman who was involved in an assault at a bar, an incident in which she reportedly threw a glass at another patron and was escorted out by security. Gennaco's report notes that by all accounts, including her own, she had been drinking and was "somewhat intoxicated." After she was handcuffed and escorted to the police cruiser, she reportedly fell and hit her head on the ground. Though paramedics responded, she declined treatment and was ultimately placed in the back seat of the cruiser, along with the male suspect.
During the ride to the Santa Clara County Main Jail in San Jose, which took about 25 minutes, the handcuffed man repeatedly slid closer to the woman and twisted his body to touch her breast with his elbow, according to the report. Though the woman was groggy and dozed off intermittently, she repeatedly admonished the man to stop touching her and asked the officer to help. Though some of her feedback appeared to reflect annoyance and irritation, rather than fear, at one point she specifically said, "That's sexual harassment. Hey, this guy is touching me," according to the auditor, who reviewed the recordings.
Each time she said something, the man reportedly moved away from her. The officer who was driving the vehicle "ended up taking no action apart from a few spoken directions to the male passenger."
Once they arrived at the jail, the woman mentioned the touching that occurred in the car, triggering an investigation and a review of the video footage. Because of her fall, she was also taken to the hospital, where according to Gennaco's report, she was cleared for booking after a few hours of treatment and observation.
A few days after the incident, the woman filed a formal complaint against the Palo Alto Police Department, claiming that her fall near the bar was caused by the officer who was arresting her; that she shouldn't have been placed in the same back seat as the male suspect; and that the officer driving the cruiser was inadequately responsive to her requests for help.
The review by Gennaco largely confirmed the police department's own findings, which concluded that the arresting officer did not cause the woman's fall and that the officer who was driving the cruiser "had not fallen below appropriate standards of care and attentiveness." But both the department and Gennaco also concluded that the supervisor who authorized the dual transport violated the department's policy, which doesn't explicitly ban the transport of male and female passengers in the same car but discourages the action. The policy does, however, allow some discretion when strict separation is "not practicable," according to Gennaco.
In this case, the decision to authorize the dual transport proved to be "ill-fated," Gennaco's report states.
"Here, it seems reasonable to point to the increased risk factors, such as the female's intoxication and grogginess and recent fall, and conclude that the normal policy that discourages dual transports should definitely have prevailed over the exception," the report states.
The auditor had a more mixed view about the behavior of the officer driving the vehicle (none of the officers are named in the report). While the department found that the officer's performance did not constitute a policy violation, the auditor called this determination "reasonable, if debatable."
The report notes that according to the video of the car ride, there were long stretches where the two suspects were apart from each other and were not touching. The video also showed "the secrecy and wariness with which the male suspect looked for opportunities to touch the sleepy female without being detected by the officer."
Gennaco's report also notes that once the group arrived at the jail, the officer moved "promptly and effectively" to notify a supervisor, review the video evidence and document the male suspect's actions.
The auditor also reviewed the video of the woman's fall and concurred with the department's finding that it wasn't the officer's fault. While the woman contended that the escorting officer pulled her arm aggressively, prompting her fall, footage from surveillance cameras indicated that the woman "seems to have very suddenly tangled feet with the officer before falling quickly." The report notes that she was turning away from the officer just before the fall, seemed "initially unsure about what happened" and only began to blame the officer after another person at the scene suggested that the officer was to blame.
The report from Gennaco recommended that the department strengthen its policy for transporting multiple suspects in the same car. Specifically, it should "require a stronger degree of exigency before a dual transport it authorized, to document the exigency when a dual transport is authorized, to require that any dual transport is only undertaken in a radio car with a physical barrier between the two individuals, and to require the transporting officer to immediately stop the transport should an arrestee complain of conduct by the other individual."
The report suggests that the department has already reached some of these conclusions on its own and has been using the incident to focus "renewed attention on its dual transport policy." It has "taken pains" to reinforce the fact that these transports should be a rare exception. Also, as part of its fleet-replacement program, the department has invested in cars that have a partition in the back to separate passengers.
"Incidents like this have a powerful influence on Department behavior in the short run, and the additional remedial steps should help ensure the longer-term prevention of a similar issue," Gennaco's report states.