If approved, the auditing firm's review will come at a time of transition for the department, which has lost about 30 budgeted positions since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and saw its staffing levels drop from 155 positions to 125, according to the city budget.
While the budget currently includes 79 sworn officer positions, Chief Robert Jonsen said last month that because of injuries and attrition, the city only has 59 sworn officers available.
The council signaled its intention to bolster police staffing levels when it adopted "Community Health and Safety" as one of its priorities last month, a category that includes responding to a recent uptick in burglaries and other crimes throughout the city.
Council members also authorized Jonsen on Feb. 7 to recruit new five officers and to hire a new deputy director for the Technical Services Division, a move that will free up another officer for patrol duties.
The city is also preparing to recruit a new police chief, with Jonsen announcing his plans to retire this summer and launching a campaign to replace Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith. City Manager Ed Shikada told the Weekly that while Jonsen's retirement is scheduled for July, he will be off-duty starting mid-June.
On Thursday night, the Human Relations Commission held the first in a series of "listening sessions" to solicit community feedback on a new chief. The second and third sessions will be held on March 19 and 31.
The leadership change will come at a time when the Police Department has been facing heavy scrutiny and lawsuits stemming from numerous violent arrests. One retired officer, Wayne Benitez, is currently facing misdemeanor charges for slamming the head of Palo Alto resident Gustavo Alvarez on a car windshield during an arrest at the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park in 2018, an incident that led to a $572,500 settlement.
Another officer, Thomas DeStefano, left the department last September after being named in numerous lawsuits, the most recent one involving an arrest in front of Happy Donuts in 2019 that left the victim, Julio Arevalo, with a shattered orbital bone.
The city also approved a $135,000 settlement in January with Joel Alejo, a Mountain View resident who was attacked by a Palo Alto police dog while he was sleeping in a shed during a police manhunt for a kidnapping suspect. (Alejo was not the suspect.)
The department also saw tension within its ranks, with a group of six officers suing the city last year over a Black Lives Matter mural that the City Council commissioned in 2020 as part of its effort to promote racial equity and diversity in the aftermath of George Floyd's killing by a Minneapolis police officer. The mural included an image of Assata Shakur, a former member of the Black Liberation Army who became a fugitive after she was convicted of shooting a state trooper in 1973.
Last week, a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge ruled against the officers after rejecting their assertion that the city's failure to immediately remove the mural constituted an "adverse action" that discriminates against officers, who are not considered a "protective class." One of the six officers involved in the suit, Christopher Moore, retired last August and issued a public letter that sharply criticized Jonsen and other department leaders.
The proposed review of department hiring and recruiting practices would signify yet another expansion in OIR Group's oversight role in Palo Alto. Last year, the council empowered the auditor to review more types of use-of-force incidents, including ones in which an officer uses a baton, a chemical agent, a less-lethal projectile or a canine, as well as internal conflicts within the department that involve discrimination, harassment or retaliation.
OIR Group released its first report under the expanded scope last month. It also issued last week a sheet summarizing the outcomes of 10 cases that it had reviewed. In seven of these, the auditor concluded either that the complaints were unfounded or that no misconduct was identified. One of these cases involved an officer who wasn't wearing a mask coughed next to a man and made a glib reference to COVID-19; he received verbal counseling but was not cited for violating any department policies.
In three other cases, OIR Group identified flaws in the conduct of department employees. The auditor concluded that a police dispatcher deviated from protocol during the department's delayed response to a medical emergency in Barron Park in 2020. And in the Alejo incident, the auditor found that the officer's failure to issue a warning or identify himself as an officer was "problematic" but did not rise to the level of a policy violation.
The only incident in which a complaint against an officer was sustained was an internal complaint that involved a patrol officer whose girlfriend joined him on a ride-along and used the computer terminal in the police car to query her own name. In reviewing the case, department supervisors also heard a conversation in which the officer alluded to use of illegal drugs at a recent party.
The officer was placed on administrative leave during the investigation and later disciplined for the inappropriate database entry, according to OIR. The audit also noted that the department could not make the determination that the officer used illegal drugs, though it concluded that his attendance at the party and "tacit endorsement'' of other people's illegal activities constituted a policy violation.
This story contains 980 words.
Stories older than 90 days are available only to subscribing members. Please help sustain quality local journalism by becoming a subscribing member today.
If you are already a member, please log in so you can continue to enjoy unlimited access to stories and archives. Membership start at $12 per month and may be cancelled at any time.