For more than a decade, Palo Alto police auditor Michael Gennaco has probed every incident that involved Palo Alto police officers deploying a Taser, discharging a firearm or committing serious offenses such as driving drunk or hitting a neighbor's car while off duty and then lying about it.
These days, however, Gennaco and Stephen Connelly, his colleague at the OIR Group, are immersed in reviewing a broad new range of incidents — ones that would not have reached them in years past. This includes public complaints that police supervisors deem too minor to warrant a full investigation; internal conflicts in which officers complain of retribution or discrimination and incidents that involve just about any type of use of force or pointing of a firearm.
The results of the scope change will be reflected in OIR Group's next audit, which will include at least 16 incidents, of which four include use of force, Gennaco told the City Council on Monday. By contrast, the firm's last audit, which was released in August, captures only three incidents, none of which involved use of force.
The shift in OIR's direction was driven by both national and local trends. The public outcry to increase police accountability in the aftermath of the May 2020 killing of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer prompted the council last year to significantly expand the auditor's scope to capture a broader range of use-of-force incidents and internal disputes, some of which would have been referred to the city's human-resources department and kept out of public spotlight. At the same time, the Palo Alto Police Department has been facing its own reckoning in recent years, with three people filing lawsuits against the department alleging excessive force (one of these cases, which involved the violent arrest of Gustavo Alvarez at the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, led to a $572,500 settlement from the city in 2019).
The goal of the audits is to boost transparency and pinpoint areas in which the department can improve. In some cases, the incidents are deemed relatively minor. The auditor's last report, which was released on Aug. 30 and which covers the first six months of 2020, focuses on three investigations that had arisen from public complaints: one in which a woman claimed an officer threatened her and accused her of vandalism (the officer approached her after someone complained that she had "keyed" his car); another in which an officer was driving 20 miles faster than the posted speed limit when responding to a nonurgent call; and a third in which a woman accused officers of refusing to help her when she complained about an antagonistic man during a protest. All three were resolved through the department's "informal inquiry" process, an expedited review that pertains to relatively minor complaints.
While the auditor largely agreed with the Police Department's approach in investigating the three incidents, it faulted the investigators for failing to interview some of the officers involved in the "dereliction of duty" complaint stemming from the protest. After noting that the investigation had failed to resolve numerous questions from the incident, the auditor recommended that the department limit the expedited process in which available evidence "lends itself to a conclusive awareness of what occurred or why the complaint otherwise lacks validity."
With the new scope, the next audit promises to be much substantive. It includes two Taser deployments and four use-of-force incidents that would not have met the criteria in the past, Gennaco and Connolly, told the council. It also includes four formal internal affairs investigations, two complaints that were made by members of the public and four "supervisory inquiry" cases that did not rise to the level of formal complaints.
Connolly said that these incidents are "an important area for the department to look at, in a multifaceted way." All of them, he said, are "potentially fertile areas for making individual officers better and making the department as a whole function more effectively."
"There are specific topics that the city and various folks have gotten together and decided really are relevant to the overall function of the Police Department and its operations and the public facing aspects of the police, as well as the internal dynamics that any organization has," Connolly said.
The OIR Group, which audits about eight law enforcement agencies, is uniquely positioned to both publicize and vet police investigations. Unlike the public and most city officials, it has unfettered access to Police Department records, Gennaco said. This includes "everything that the Police Department has used to formulate their conclusions about investigative outcomes as well any administrative actions they have taken in relation to founded investigations."
The department, he noted, has been very cooperative and generally responsive. He pointed to the agency's historic policy of writing generic boilerplate form letters to people whose complaints against officers were deemed unfounded. Those letters, Gennaco said, are easy to generate but they do not give a lot of confidence to the complainant that their concerns were taken seriously. OIR Group suggested that the department provide more information about the specifics on the case in its letters — a recommendation that the department adopted.
"The Police Department has agreed with us and has developed complaint responses that are more tailored and more customized to the actual complaint and provides additional information without violating any privacy concerns of the officer," Gennaco said.
The attention to details has long been a feature of OIR Group's reviews. Earlier this year, it reviewed an altercation in which a police officer fired a Taser on a man whom he had pulled over for riding a bicycle on the wrong side of the street. The department had determined that the use of force was reasonable, given that the man reportedly threw his bike down and proceeded to berate and challenge the officer, who fired the Taser when the man leaned closer to him.
The audit, which was released in March, largely comported with the department findings. It noted that while the probes from the Taser didn't penetrate the man's clothing, they appeared to have knocked the man back to a seated position, where he remained until backup arrived. But it also raised questions about the officer's repeated use of profanity when speaking to the bicyclist, who alleged that, as a Black man, he was being unfairly "profiled." The officer, the auditor wrote, appeared to "quickly match the subject's pugnacious demeanor with his own" and made no attempt to deescalate the situation.
After reviewing the details of the case, the audit recommended that the department "evaluate, investigate as needed, and document its response to racial bias allegations, even when they emerge through avenues outside the traditional complaint system."
With the added scope, the OIR Group reports promise to be both more substantive and more predictable in their release dates. The firm's historic practice of releasing reports twice a year was halted in 2019, as the auditor and the city debated what types of cases the firm should be reviewing. In December 2019, the council voted to remove from its scope internal disputes within the department, a change that prevented OIR Group from releasing its findings about an incident in which a police supervisor used a racial slur when talking to a Black officer. The change, which was reversed last year, created months of delays in the reporting process.
On Monday, however, the council generally agreed that the city should give the auditor even more responsibilities in vetting police incidents and procedures. Council member Eric Filseth noted that the Alvarez incident never would have come to light if not for footage of the arrest that Alvarez captured through his surveillance camera. He recommended a performance audit that analyzes the internal controls within the Police Department, with the goal of ensuring that cases like that don't remain hidden from the public in the future.
"We're talking about an incident that everyone agrees should not have happened," Filseth said.
Mayor Tom DuBois concurred and supported commissioning one performance audit per year, which could pertain to topics such as an officer's duty to report misconduct and activation of body-camera footage. Vice Mayor Pat Burt said that while transparency is one component of the audits, OIR Group's efforts to improve department operations are just as important.
"As much as we'd love it, we can't expect an entire department of police officers to perform very difficult jobs perfectly," Burt said. "I'm more than willing to be critical when significant misconduct occurs, but we also need to recognize that this is a process of trying to improve our performance and have better and better standards."