A Palo Alto police officer who has been named in several lawsuits, including one stemming from his violent arrest of resident Julio Arevalo in front of the Happy Donuts store on El Camino Real in 2019, is no longer working in the Palo Alto Police Department, the Weekly has learned.
The city would not state whether Agent Thomas DeStefano left willingly, was fired or was asked to resign, claiming that doing so would violate state law. The Weekly has discovered, however, that his last day of work in Palo Alto was Sept. 7 and that he was one of seven police officers who have left the department since June.
The list of recent departures from the Police Department also includes police Agent Christopher Moore, who is one of five officers who filed a lawsuit against the city over the Black Lives Matter mural that the City Council commissioned last year and that included an image of Assata Shakur, a former member of the Black Liberation Army who was convicted of shooting a state trooper in 1972.
Other officers who have left the department since June include Sgt. DuJuan Green, a former school resource officer, and officers Matthew Hubbard, Daniel Seghetti, Jason Wunder and Daniel Ortiz.
The departures come at a time when the city is in the midst of instituting police reforms and as it is preparing for negotiations over a new contract with its largest police union, the Palo Alto Peace Officers' Association. And even as it's facing a lawsuit from a group of its own officers, Palo Alto also is confronting two separate lawsuits from individuals who allege that they have been victims of police brutality. One case involves Joel Alejo, who was repeatedly bitten by a Palo Alto police dog while he was in a shed in Mountain View, an incident that was captured by body cameras.
The Arevalo arrest wasn't the first high-profile incident that involved DeStefano and that led to a lawsuit. In 2013, DeStefano was one of the officers involved in the arrest of Los Altos Hills resident Tyler Harney, who reportedly suffered a seizure during a traffic stop in which he was a passenger. According to the lawsuit, DeStefano and another officer forcefully detained Harney, with one of them putting his knee against Harney's back and neck, and another one pulled his arms, causing injuries. The city settled the case in 2016 for $250,000.
DeStefano also was involved in the violent arrest of Gustavo Alvarez at the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park in February 2018, an incident that led to a $572,500 settlement from the city. Surveillance footage from the arrest shows DeStafano approaching Alvarez's house, with his gun drawn and screaming instructions for Alvarez to come out. He later helps pin Alvarez to the hood of a car, where he is handcuffed, and then watches as another officer, Sgt. Wayne Benitez, slams Alvarez's head on the windshield — a use of force that was left out of the police report in apparent violation of department policy.
DeStefano also faced disciplinary action over an off-duty incident in San Jose in which he reportedly hit a neighbor's car and then repeatedly lied to investigators about it. According to the police report, a witness heard the crash and then saw DeStefano exit the vehicle. Palo Alto's internal investigation concluded that DeStefano violated policy by leaving the scene of the accident without contacting his neighbor or taking responsibility and that he violated additional policies pertaining to engaging in conduct "unbecoming" of the department and to providing inaccurate and incomplete notification to a supervisor after the incident, according to a 2017 report from Palo Alto's independent police auditor, OIR Group. While the audit does not identify officers in the cases it reviews, the police report from San Jose identifies DeStefano as the party involved in the hit-and-run incident.
As a result of the incident, DeStefano was placed on administrative leave, pleaded guilty to an infraction and returned to full duty about five months after the incident, according to the 2017 report from OIR Group. The auditors concluded that his misconduct was "quite possibly greater" than what Palo Alto attributed to him and "may have well included drunk driving and knowingly making false statements to the handling law enforcement agency."
Calls for DeStefano's firing have grown louder since the May 2020 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, an incident that prompted demonstrations against police brutality across the nation. Dozens of residents spoke out at council meetings urging the city to fire officers involved in recent incidents involving use of force and nearly 4,000 signed an online petition titled, "Fire and fine Agent Thomas DeStefano."
While City Manager Ed Shikada would not say whether DeStefano's departure was voluntary, the city also is preparing for possible lawsuits relating to two separate employee matters. On Sept. 20, the City Council met in a closed session to discuss two matters that pertain to "arbitration of employee discipline."
City Attorney Molly Stump declined to provide any information about these two cases, which are listed on the agenda under the heading of "potential litigation." The state law that is cited to justify the closed session pertains to matters in which "a point has been reached where, in the opinion of the legislative body of the local agency on the advice of its legal counsel, based on existing facts and circumstances, there is a significant exposure to litigation against the local agency."