Responding to waves of protests against police brutality that have swept the nation and arrived at their doorstep on Monday, Palo Alto's city leaders publicly condemned the killing of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody and offered their support to peaceful demonstrators.
Hours after protesters staged peaceful demonstrations in Menlo Park and Palo Alto, the city's mayor, city manager and police chief all expressed support for those fighting for racial equality. City Manager Ed Shikada and Police Chief Robert Jonsen issued a joint statement with Pastor Paul Bains of Saint Samuel Church in East Palo Alto (who serves as Palo Alto police chaplain) and the Rev. Kaloma Smith, chairman of the city's Human Relations Commission and pastor of the University AME Zion Church in Palo Alto.
Peaceful events like those that took place in the city, they wrote, and their necessary calls for change, "should outshine the acts of violence taking place in several communities," the statement reads.
"We condemn the actions and inaction of the police officers in Minnesota and we do not tolerate or condone this type of behavior in Palo Alto at any level," Shikada, Jonsen, Bains and Smith wrote. "Their actions have had a tremendous impact on all police officers serving communities like Palo Alto all across our great nation."
The Monday actions followed a period in which the city has been facing its own questions about police brutality and transparency.
In December, the City Council voted unanimously to revise the agreement with the city's independent police auditor to specifically exclude internal personnel matters from the auditor's purview. The action followed media reports about a high-level officer using a racist slur against another officer, who is black.
A month prior to that action, the council approved a $572,500 settlement with a resident of the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park who was forcefully arrested in front of his home and mocked by the supervising officer. Days after that settlement, the city was hit with a claim for a July 2019 incident in which a man was taken down and arrested in front of Happy Donuts – an altercation that had left him with a concussion and a broken orbital bone. The claim is seeking $3.85 million in damages from the city.
The joint statement alluded to those incidents and said that no police department is "immune from public scrutiny, nor should it be."
"Even here in Palo Alto, the actions of a few officers in the past may have caused our community to question their commitment to the law and policy," the statement read. "However, through mutual respect, trust and a deep regard for the Constitutional rights of all, we remain more steadfast today than ever to continue to support our community through these uncertain times."
Barron Park resident Winter Dellenbach asked the council during its meeting Monday to take more substantive action and to change its approach for addressing incidents involving police use of force.
"We all know that many other cities have problems with police abuse and brutality but our city does too," Dellenbach said. "It happens in our city. It's a systemic problem. It was created and nourished by racism and it still is. And you know that."
She asked the council to prioritize individuals that make credible brutality claim over denying these claims "at all costs." The city, she said, seems to go into a "protective crouch, which sends a really bad message." She also said the city should be more active in demanding regular auditor reports, which have traditionally been issued twice a year (the last report, which was issued in March, was the first audit since October 2018).
"That's the way to honor the death of this man – by actually taking action and to make a statement that we're a zero-tolerance city for police abuse and brutality for any reason against anyone, because there's no excuse for it," Dellenbach said.
Speaking during the meeting, Jonsen called George Floyd's death "a tragedy that shouldn't have happened" and tied it to the nation's broader racial disparities.
"Our country is failing to address the core systemic problems that we've been facing for years," Jonsen said. "We have made such little progress as a country in correcting the many of the racial and socioeconomic disparities that contribute to the divisive breaks in the community that we're seeing now."
As a police chief, he said, he is also saddened and deeply concerned about the "welfare of the thousands of men and women in the law enforcement profession who have always served this community with professionalism and respect and are being violently attacked defending lawful protesters and property of others, while also trying to maintain the peace throughout our country."
Jonsen expressed appreciation for the peaceful demonstrators, whom he called "a great example for others to follow." The department, he said, is committed to protecting all people who are exercising their right to peacefully demonstrate. He also said the department will "hold personnel accountable when necessary" and provide transparency to enhance public trust.
Several council members also said Monday they were horrified by the video of Floyd's killing, which Councilman Eric Filseth called "appalling" and Vice Mayor Tom DuBois described it as "deeply horrifying." Mayor Adrian Fine said the city will "continue to hold its officers to the highest standards, and insist that all people be treated with the dignity and respect that each of us deserves."
"We cannot ignore that blacks and people of color in America suffer prejudice and inequality," Fine said. "Black communities and families are less well off. Black lives are not valued equally in this country and it's a stain on our nation's soul."