Palo Alto's independent police auditor took issue with the Police Department's response to a complaint about an officer who reportedly joked about arresting a victim advocate during an investigation of sexual assault and then accused her of playing the "race card," according to a new report from the auditor.
The incident is one of more than a dozen that the auditor, OIR Group, details in its latest report, which covers all incidents the firm completed reviewing in the first six months of this year. This includes eight complaints against Palo Alto officers, seven of which came from the public and one that was initiated internally.
One of the incidents that led to a complaint involved an officer who was in the emergency room with two victim advocates when the senior advocate began explaining her duties, which included counseling services. At some point, the officer took her and her colleague, a trainee advocate, aside to complain about the client. He told them that the client had three prior reports with no corroborating evidence and that she had mental health issues, the report states. He also suggested that the alleged victim "was wasting everyone's time with her allegations," as well as law enforcement money and the time of the advocates and attending nurses, the report states.
After the senior advocate reportedly told the officer that her role is to support the client, not to determine the credibility of allegations, the officer continued to express his grievance, according to the audit. And when she told the officer that she doesn't have a solution, he reportedly pulled out handcuffs and said, "Well since you're useless to me, I guess I'm going to arrest you."
The victim advocate said she told the officer that his comment was not funny and "not cool," according to the report. When the officer didn't respond, she said, "I don't know if you can tell, but I'm black. You can't joke like that with me."
The complainant said the officer replied, "Oh, so you're gonna pull the race card?" the report states. The complainant said she told the officer, "Unfortunately, that's the reality of the world I live in" and explained to him that he cannot think that what's going on in the media is not going to affect people.
According to her account, which the trainee corroborated, she then added, "Yes I'm going to pull it because it's the truth for me, it's my truth." The officer stopped talking to her and walked away.
The Palo Alto Police Department investigated the complaint and reportedly provided counseling to the officer, who admitted that he had exercised bad judgment in making the comment about arresting the advocate, which he said was intended as a joke. He also said he walked away after the "race card" comment in an attempt to de-escalate.
But in responding to the complaint, the department's reviewer found that the evidence "did not establish any type of discourteous, disrespectful or discriminatory treatment by the officer" and exonerated the officer, concluding that his actions were consistent with the Department's policy and procedures, according to the audit. According to OIR Group, the reviewer determined that the officer misread the situation and failed to factor in the victim advocate's race or "perceived personal beliefs" before making what the complaint describes as an "ill-timed attempt at humor."
According to the auditor, however, the reviewer focused only on the joke about the arrest and not on the "race card" comment. And while the department found that the officer did not violate its policy on discourteous conduct, it did not consider whether he ran afoul of another policy, which deems it a violation to commit acts that "bring discredit to (PAPD)."
"As PAPD acknowledges, the way in which the officer comported himself during the encounter was not in the best tradition of 21st century policing," the audit states. "PAPD should have considered whether the officer's behavior amounted to a violation of this policy."
The audit also noted that when the department notified the victim advocate about the officer's exoneration, it did not mention any of its findings about the officer's "sub-optimal performance," including his failure to apologize, potentially leaving her with the impression that the department had no issues with how the officer comported himself during the encounter. The audit described the department's failure to apologize to the woman and limiting its letter to a "very limited and technical response" as a "lost opportunity."
In his response, Police Chief Andrew Binder agreed with the audit's recommendation that responses to complainants should include "an apology for the negative interaction with our employees."
The only incident that was initiated by the department itself involved a 71-year-old homeless woman who said she was assaulted by a man and asked that the man be prosecuted. An officer who responded told her that she should call back if, or when, the man returned.
Later in the day, the woman was involved in another incident that included allegations of physical and sexual assault, according to the audit. A detective responding to this case saw that there was an earlier call involving the woman but that the officer didn't file a report or make a referral to Adult Protective Services, as required by department policy. The department determined that a violation had occurred and followed up with a training bulletin and briefings, according to the audit.
Of the eight investigations, that was the only one in which a complaint against an officer was sustained.
The auditors generally concurred with most of the department's determinations pertaining to complaints against officers, often deeming the internal review to be fair and reasonable. One such complaint involved a man who complained that an officer inappropriately arrested his girlfriend for domestic violence and resisting arrest following an argument. Officers determined that she had scratched the man and a neighbor reportedly told the police that he saw her punch him several times. The woman also reportedly kicked an officer in the leg as she was taken to a patrol car. The audit concurred with the department's finding that the investigation was proper.
Another incident involved a complaint from a man who was arrested for lewd behavior and who claimed that an officer chewed tobacco and ate a burrito in his presence. The complainant disputed accusations that he was trying to gratify himself sexually while following juvenile females and claimed that the officer's behavior was "disrespectful and a form of bullying." The officer was exonerated for the burrito after the department's review, though supervisors sustained the complaint about the chewing tobacco, which is prohibited under department policy.
The department also dismissed as "unfounded" a complaint from a man who was arrested on domestic violence charges against his wife. A week after the arrest, the man claimed that an officer had "mocked and discriminated against him because of his accent and Muslim heritage." Footage from the officer's body-worn camera showed that the investigation was reasonable and that there was no evidence of racial or religious discrimination, according to the audit.
OIR Group also looked into seven instances in which officers used force, including one in which two officers simultaneously deployed a Taser and a PepperBall launcher at a man who was reportedly spitting and throwing a stool at officers. The man, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, had reportedly thrown a trash can at his father earlier that day and had choked his mother the previous day. Responders from the Mobile Crisis Response Team, a county program that deploys clinicians to calls involving mental health crises, also had arrived earlier in the week but had not been able to assist, according to the report.
The auditor largely concurred with the department's findings that the use of force was appropriate. Its report noted, however, that the officers in the Taser case had developed a plan to only use the PepperBall but then deviated from the plan by firing both weapons independently. The audit suggested that the department's review should have included some consideration of why officers diverted from their initial tactical plan.
In another incident, officers confronted a man who was uttering irrational statements in the middle of a busy street, the report states. He reportedly advised officers to shoot him and did not comply with instructions. An officer grabbed the man by his arm and pulled him to the ground, according to the report. After officers walked him to the bench, he started screaming and attempted to get up. Paramedics were called to treat the man and injected him with a sedative, according to the report.
The auditors agreed that use of force was appropriate, but noted that the documentation makes no reference to whether the Mobile Crisis Response Team was contacted. The audit recommends that the department should document in mental health calls whether a clinician was contacted and, if not, why not. It also recommends that the department develop protocols with mental health agencies so that clinicians are able to review body-work camera footage and provide feedback on ways to improve that response.
Auditors also learned about two other incidents in which officers pointed their weapons, though OIR Group is still reviewing these cases and will discuss them in a future report.