Responding to a recent audit, the Palo Alto Police Department has revised various policies pertaining to internal investigations, canine deployments and interviews of witnesses following incidents involving police force or officer misconduct.
The department disclosed the revisions earlier this month in a memo released by acting Police Chief Andrew Binder. The memo details the department's response to 19 recommendations that the city's independent police auditor, OIR Group, issued earlier this year after reviewing all incidents that involved Taser deployments, use of force and complaints against the department between July 2020 and December 2021.
Binder's memo, which details numerous policy revisions, in itself represents a shift for the department. Discussions between the auditor and department leaders have historically occurred away from the public eye and then were summarized in the audit report. At a March hearing, however, the City Council directed the Police Department to start offering these responses in writing. The new memo is the first such written response.
While the cases reviewed by the auditor pertain to 16 incidents involving public complaints, use of force or internal disputes, it devotes particular attention to the attack on Joel Alejo, a Mountain View resident who was sleeping in a shed while Palo Alto and Mountain View police were searching the neighborhood for a kidnapping suspect. Video from the incident shows Palo Alto Police Officer Nick Enberg entering the shed with his police dog and directing the dog to repeatedly bite Alejo as he is lying on the ground. After handcuffing him, police determine that he is not the person they are looking for.
In January, the council approved a $135,000 settlement with Alejo.
The auditor's review of the case indicated Palo Alto's policy for using canines doesn't provide enough guidance and too much discretion to the canine handlers, Stephen Connolly of the OIR Group told the council during a March discussion.
"Canine trainers were trained to sort of use the canines the best way they knew how. That sometimes works but sometimes doesn't work. And in this case, the department realized there was a need to tighten up the policy," Connolly said at the March 14 meeting.
According to Binder's memo, the department revised its policy manual to "expressly reflect the Department's existing expectation for officers to identify themselves prior to the use of force," which was not done in this case. The department also agreed with the auditor's recommendation that the agency adopt a "modified warning" for K-9 officers to identify as such when formal announcements are not practical.
This recommendation, Binder wrote, has been "addressed in the policy manual."
The updated policy manual, which the department published in May, states that a "clearly audible warning to announce that a canine will be released if the person does not surrender shall be made prior to each entry, deployment, or release of the canine.
"When a search involves entering multiple distinct properties, a warning should precede each such entry. The mere presence of a police canine can be an effective tool for facilitating the peaceful surrender of a suspect," the manual states.
Other revisions to the manual address the auditor's recommendations that the department make it a policy to interview officers from other agencies who are witnesses to an incident and that the city try to obtain body-worn camera footage from these officers when possible. In the Alejo case, Mountain View officers accompanied Palo Alto officers into the shed and Mountain View subsequently released camera footage of the incident from numerous angles.
OIR Group also took issue with Palo Alto's failure to talk to Alejo once he hired an attorney to handle his claim against the city. Binder's memo states that Palo Alto agreed with this recommendation and has "revised its administrative procedures to ensure that administrative investigators attempt to interview civilian victims and witnesses, even when represented by counsel and if no interview occurs, provide an explanation as to why."
Other changes were implemented through issuances of department memoranda or new procedures. In one case, officers who were investigating a traffic accident arrested one of the drivers after concluding that he was under the influence of marijuana, which they discovered in his vehicle. The district attorney declined to pursue any charges, however, because the officers had failed to obtain a blood sample from the driver.
The auditor had recommended that the department provide verbal counseling to the two officers about their failure to obtain a blood draw but, according to its report, saw no evidence in the file that any counseling had occurred.
According to Binder's memo, the department has since issued an Administrative Investigation Disposition memorandum that documents departmental action taken as part of an administrative investigation.
"This memorandum is provided to the involved officer and retained in the administrative case file once the investigation has been completed," Binder wrote.
The department also has revised its administrative procedures to ensure that two investigators are assigned for key interviews during internal affairs investigations of staff. This was in response to an incident in which an officer was found to have violated department policy when his girlfriend used the department's criminal record database to query her name while riding along with him. In reviewing the incident, a supervisor viewed body-camera footage in which the officer alludes to recent use of illegal drugs at a party, according to the audit.
While the department ultimately could not prove the drug use, the auditors had some issues with how the case was handled. Though the audit found that the officer's statements "strain credulity in several self-serving ways," the interview with him was short and conducted by a single supervisor who accepted the explanations at face value.
The audit recommends that in future investigations, at least two people be assigned as "questioners" to increase "the likelihood that all relevant ground will be covered and that appropriate follow-up questions will get asked."