Police chief says use of force is 'very rare.' Critics are not convinced. | News | Palo Alto Online |


Police chief says use of force is 'very rare.' Critics are not convinced.

Council mum on recent allegations of excessive force, racism against police officers

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Facing numerous allegations of excessive force by local police officers, including two that were captured on video, Palo Alto police Chief Robert Jonsen assured the City Council on Monday night that such incidents are extremely rare and that officers who cross the line will be held accountable.

But while his words appeared to have mollified council members, who generally refrained from asking questions about the two high-profile cases, several residents criticized Jonsen and department for its failure to take responsibility for the recent episodes. This includes the February 2018 arrest at Bueno Vista Mobile Home Park, which involved a police sergeant slamming a resident named Gustavo Alvarez into a windshield of a car, and the July 2019 arrest in front of Happy Donuts, in which an officer pushed Julio Arevalo against a spiked railing and then brought him to the ground, shattering his orbital bone in the process and causing a concussion.

In both cases, the men who were arrested accused the department of excessive force. The council approved in November a $572,500 settlement with Alvarez, which also required a letter of apology from the sergeant, who had since retired (in addition, all sworn officers were required to take LBGTQ sensitivity training). Arevalo filed a claim against the department last fall, seeking $3.85 million in damages. With the city rejecting his claim, Arevalo's attorney Cody Salfen told the Weekly that he plans to file a lawsuit in federal court against the department in the coming months for what he called a "brutal assault."

The Monday discussion on recent police initiatives was Jonsen's first public response to the highly publicized allegations. While his presentation was mostly focused on day-to-day police operations — including an overview of recent initiatives and the latest crime statistics — he acknowledged that his department has been subject to criticism because of several high-profile cases.

He also emphasized during his presentation that use of force is extremely rare. The annual report that the department released this month notes that of the 2,183 arrests that Palo Alto officers made in 2019, force was used in 18 incidents — a rate of 0.008%.

"I'm not naive to the fact that we've been subject to some very serious allegations over the past year," Jonsen said. "I want to assure you that I take these allegations very seriously and misconduct will not be tolerated."

Jonsen also said that most of the incidents that he had reviewed that included use of force involved individuals who were either under the influence or resisting arrest. In 77% of these cases, he added, officers relied on physical strength and did not use any weapons.

"I think our personnel do a phenomenal job in communicating with the vast majority of individuals that they have to apprehend to get them to the back seat without having to use force at all," Jonsen said.

Jonsen also highlighted the downward trend in most violent crimes, with the number of assaults dipping to its lowest level since 2015 and the number of commercial and residential burglaries dropping from 234 in 2018 to 179 in 2019.

While council members thanked Jonsen for his presentation, Winter Dellenbach, a Barron Park resident who led the effort to preserve the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, pushed back against Jonsen's assertions that use-of-force incidents are highly unusual. She alluded to a surveillance video of Arevalo's arrest in front of Happy Donuts, which involved him getting pressed against the railing and then pinned to the ground. The arrest in the video, Dellenbach said, "was simply unreasonable."

"This minimizing of the seriousness of use-of-force is an undermining signal that signals no improvement is needed," Dellenbach said after Jonsen made his presentation. "If PAPD was in couples counseling, the therapist would bust it for deflecting and for not taking ownership and responsibility. ... We cannot get better unless we get out of denial and can deal with this in really good faith. And I don't think you're there."

Jonsen also touted the department's efforts to improve transparency and accountability, including its recent purchase of about 60 body cameras for officers and police cruisers equipped with five cameras. He also cited Palo Alto's independent police auditor, the OIG Group, which is charged with reviewing all Taser deployments, citizen complaints and administrative investigations by the department itself. The department, he noted, is one of only two in Santa Clara County that uses an auditor (San Jose is the only other city that does so).

Last December, however, the council changed the rules for independent auditor by expressly precluding the auditor from looking into incidents involving internal conflicts within the department. That decision followed reports of a 2014 incident in which a white officer, Capt. Zach Perron, allegedly used a racial slur against another officer, who had since left the department. The auditor, in fact, did not release a single report in 2019.

While neither Jonsen nor any of the council members have addressed the 2014 incident, Aram James, a former public attorney and frequent police critic, suggested Monday that the city implemented the change to the auditor's contract expressly to keep that episode out of the public eye.

"He's talking about transparency tonight," Aram told the council. "This isn't transparent. This is five years of covering up the Perron scandal. Not one of you have the guts to say, 'Hey chief. When are we going to release that?'"

While council members refrained from asking Jonsen about the excessive-force allegations and the prolonged absence of police audits, they did ask questions about other notable trends, including increased traffic enforcement in key corridors and an influx of car burglaries, which Jonsen said is a regional trend.

The department's annual report showed the number of larceny cases, which includes car burglaries, spiking from 1,197 in 2018 to 1,724 in 2019. That's nearly twice the number that were reported in 2011.

Jonsen said most of these incidents are committed by organized groups from outside the area, with some coming from as far as Los Angeles. Palo Alto, he noted, is not alone in facing this problem. He cited recent episodes in Mountain View, where there were about 40 auto burglaries in a day, and Menlo Park, where there were 12.

"They are very sophisticated, very quick and they hit different neighborhoods, different areas very fast ... and they can hit 30 to 40 cars in a matter of moments," he said.

Mayor Adrian Fine asked about the department's recent ramping up of its traffic-enforcement efforts. Jonsen had created a two-officer traffic team in 2018. Last year, he added another officer to the team and solicited feedback from his advisory panel of neighborhood representatives about areas where enforcement is most needed.

Jonsen said the team visited six target locations last year 198 times and issued 651 citations. The city's annual report also noted that the number of collisions had dropped from 993 in 2018 to 836 last year. When Fine asked whether the city should expect the increased presence of police officers to change drivers' behavior, Jonsen suggested that it probably will have some effect on people passing through Palo Alto.

"The feedback I've received is it's very noticeable," Jonsen said. "When we went out to same locations 198 times, people tended to notice. You better stop at that stop sign or you're going to get ticketed."


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21 people like this
Posted by A Moral Catastrophe
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 25, 2020 at 5:26 am

Our current Council majority is incapable of providing responsible governance. They haven't lifted a finger to prevent the police violence, police racism, or police coverups detailed above. They voted to reappoint a Planning Commissioner who broke city laws. Rather than stopping developers who flout city rules to rake in millions of dollars, our Council majority instead creates ever more giveaways for the very same developers. And one Council member is herself under ongoing investigation for breaking election laws.

Palo Alto's present government is a moral catastrophe. Please help by electing responsible councilmembers this November.

28 people like this
Posted by Claudia Marie
a resident of Ventura
on Feb 25, 2020 at 7:34 am

^How about you move to Frisco or Oakland where the cops do absolutely nothing. I for one applaud the hard work of PAPD. Palo Alto is one of the few low crime cities left in the Bay Area

16 people like this
Posted by Keep Palo Alto Safe & Secure
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 25, 2020 at 8:17 am

The PAPD should not exercise excessive force in the detention and arrest of Palo Alto citizens/residents.

It's OK when detaining suspects from out of town or transients who are committing crimes.

Palo Alto has become an affluent city & its own residents are not known for breaking into cars, houses or sexual assaults. They don't need to.

It's usually the criminals & vagrants from outside the city boundaries who come to pillage or assault.

Today's daily Post mentioned that many of the car burglary suspects come from as far away as LA & recent accounts show suspects and arrestees coming over from Solano County and the East Bay to shoplift & burglarize vehicles.

It's like PA housing...if one cannot afford to live in Palo Alto, live farther away where it is more affordable & commute.

And the same goes for high-end shopping (aka shoplifting)...if you cannot afford to buy clothes at Stanford Shopping Center, go to Target.

While fencing stolen goods is an industry of its own, the Palo Alto police should crack down on out of town thieves, homeless derelicts and the mentally ill who are disrupting the modern day Palo Alto way of life...as these types are not welcome in our city.

14 people like this
Posted by Irresponsible
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 25, 2020 at 8:49 am

The Chief only spoke of use of force as an after thought when he saw the NBC TV cameras there. If he was serious about stopping the long time culture of unreasonable force in the PAPD he would have confronted it head on in the Annual Report presented last night. It was barely mentee there and then dismissively.

Veteran cops are getting caught beating and taking down people so forcefully and needlessly that bones are broken and no charges sustained. We only know because of private videos and lawsuits. This is the culture of the PAPD - other cops cover up and remain silent. It’s not a couple bad apples.

The city council, but for one question by DuBois, was completely disinterested though this is costing you and me big time and will continue to in lawsuit settlements.

Staff has undermined the Independent Police Audit process as outlined in the Police Manual by simply not releasing them, counter to the process and depriving the public and press access. Neither the 2018 or 19 Reports have been released with the Chief saying he will release the 2018 soon - we shall see.

The message sent last night by all was - “We don’t care”. We don’t care about real accountability and serious reform. We don’t care if the public has any reason to trust us to be responsible or to exercise oversight.

2 people like this
Posted by No Donut for you!
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Feb 25, 2020 at 11:37 am

"Very Rare"? Check out subreddit /r/Bad_Cop_No_Donut (Web Link) to see how "very rare" police brutality is.

9 people like this
Posted by Do not question the popo
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 25, 2020 at 12:13 pm

Thandie, Claudia Marie, for showing your support of gestapo tactics by the papd.
And who really believes the chief? What about the officer who used the n word? Why has the police stymied attempts to get information on this case.and the spineless city council just pays out settlements and is afrsid to ask questions

9 people like this
Posted by Public Relations vs. reporting
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 25, 2020 at 12:35 pm

The annual PAPD report used to be loaded with data that showed how the department was doing and how it compared to other departments in the county. There was also a lot of contextual information that helped citizens and Council understand problems. For instance, it used to provide info on how population shift during the daytime related to traffic safety issues and calls for service. That kind of info was not in this year's report, but I don't know how you evaluate performance without it. This year's report is a bound, four-color PR piece loaded with pictures and much thinner data reported. I was disappointed to see that.

I appreciate PAPD. Maybe they printed this as a promo piece for job candidates. I know they are short handed and have been aggressively recruiting new officers. However, I think the staff report should have been unchanged in the type of material that was typically provided over the years.

Please go back to the old model. PAPD is good. Show your stuff in a more substantive way.

2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 25, 2020 at 1:11 pm

In Oakland, a great police chief has been fired for being a great police chief.

Just who is running the checken coop?

2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 25, 2020 at 1:12 pm

In Oakland, a great police chief has been fired for being a great police chief.

Just who is running the chicken coop?

12 people like this
Posted by Keeping The Crooks & Derelicts Out of PA
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Feb 26, 2020 at 8:35 am

Quote: "The PAPD should not exercise excessive force in the detention and arrest of Palo Alto citizens/residents.

It's OK when detaining suspects from out of town or transients who are committing crimes."

^^^^^ Concurring. When confronted by the PAPD, Palo Alto residents should identify themselves as such & the police should refrain from using unecessary force.

For non-residents who are either committing a crime in PA or creating a public nuisance, showing less consideration towards them will send out a powerful message...as in you & your types are not welcome here.

Note..the use of excessive force is not recommended but making certain types of 'undesirables' feel unwelcome in Palo Alto would be a step in the right direction.

Racial profiling is also unecessary
as these types of individuals can be easily identified by their sheer actions & presence.

4 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 26, 2020 at 9:35 am

>> Posted by Keeping The Crooks & Derelicts Out of PA, a resident of Palo Alto Hills

So, how do we keep the *rich* crooks out of PA?

12 people like this
Posted by Zhao
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Feb 26, 2020 at 9:50 am

OK for rich crooks to live in Palo Alto. Don't want bums or thieves.

2 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 26, 2020 at 9:56 am

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood

>> In Oakland, a great police chief has been fired for being a great police chief.

Which chief are you referring to?

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