After trying and failing to engage the man in a calm way, officers proceeded to other tactics. One officer fired a pepper ball at the wall near the man, which apparently didn't do anything. The second one fired a Sage launcher, which emits plastic pellets, and hit the man in the buttocks, prompting him to dismount from the railing and surrender to officers.
The response was, by all accounts, appropriate to the situation. A police supervisor determined that the use of force was "reasonable and necessary," according to the OIR Group. The auditor also noted that a police K-9 at the scene had remained quiet and did not distract from the de-escalation efforts. The man was uninjured.?
But while the independent auditors praised the department for restraint and thoughtful tactical planning, they were put off when they saw footage of one of the officers who used force volunteer for the assignment by saying, "I'll f---ing light him up."?
The comment, the audit noted, was said in a "cavalier way that certainly would have played badly in the aftermath of a worse outcome."
The incident is by no means the only one in which local officers used profanities. The most recent audit includes a different incident in which police confronted, chased and wrestled a man who was allegedly ingesting drugs in public. A review of the incident referred to several uses of profanity. In one case, it was deployed as an acceptable tactic as officers tried to apprehend the man. In another, the comment was deemed problematic by supervisors because "it seemed more a product of frustration/anger than calculation." The officer reportedly received verbal counseling.
In a presentation to the City Council on Monday, OIR Group auditors Michael Gennaco and Stephen Connolly generally lauded the Palo Alto Police Department for its thorough reviews of complaints against local officers and for their willingness to revise and improve policies to address issues flagged by the auditors.?
Yet the auditors also raised concerns about salty language that occasionally gets thrown around during incidents, even if in most cases it is limited to interactions between officers. At a time when body-worn cameras are constantly recording nearly all police actions, such comments can cause an embarrassment to the department and the city if the footage is released, the auditors said.
"When you're wearing a body-worn camera all the time and you're constantly being recorded, there's a possibility that off-hand comments or things that are going to be said that don't always reflect particularly well on the officer or on the agency," Connolly said. "That is something we did notice on occasion in some of these cases and it's not anything that the department is not unfamiliar with."
The audit, which covers use-of-force incidents between January and June of this year, notes that even when a comment is not audible to the public — or to the subject of force himself — "there were instances of profanity that were nonetheless recorded, and potentially discoverable in future proceedings."
"In the heat of the moment, there may be a need or an interest in using that for command presence, to be more emphatic if you will, but after the handcuffs are on, after things are stabilized, there needs to be a de-escalation," Gennaco told the council.?
"And then you have an officer make an unprofessional comment filled with profanity, it could lead to an impression that the officer is angry or that the officer has lost control. Neither are good."
Connolly said that OIR Group has noticed a "significant improvement in the department's willingness to engage with that issue," a task that has been made easier by body-worn cameras.
"It took a while to get them to sort of take that seriously," Connolly said. "And sometimes it's not about disciplining the officers, just making sure it's acknowledged by supervision and addressed, whether it's performance counseling or whatever. It is something that the agency takes seriously."
The recent audit recommends that the department use "individual instances of questionable 'on camera' commentary or actions as a basis for reminding personnel of the importance of professionalism, particularly with regard to deployment of force."?
In his response to the recommendation, Police Chief Andrew Binder noted that the department has a review process to address policy violations or improper behaviors and agreed that those behaviors should be addressed with the involved officers.
Binder said that when a department review of an incident notices inappropriate comments, it brings the officer in and provides counseling, sets expectations and goes over the policy.
"Generally, from my recollection, we don't have repeated offenders," Binder told the council.
Council member Greer Stone, who used to work for the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office, said use of profanity can have repercussions beyond merely embarrassment. He recalled a case in which officers from another agency had spent about an hour searching a person's home and their conversation during the search was so over-the-top that his supervisor opted to drop the case rather than let the jury hear it.
"This goes beyond just embarrassing remarks that could be bad for the department, it can actually harm prosecution in the future. I'd like to see us be maybe a little more proactive in that instead of waiting to remediate, but glad to see that remediation is helpful," Stone said.
Another trend that the auditors flagged in both their audit and their Monday presentation is the growing role of mental health professionals in responding to police calls. While they characterized the trend as generally a positive one, their review suggested that the department could do a better job in documenting the involvement of clinicians in responses.
"As with every new situation, what we saw was that there's a potential for effective resolution of these cases by creating this co-responder model," Gennaco said. "But what we also saw is whenever there's a new process, there's a little uncertainty about how that's going to be documented."
The auditors recommend that the department provide written documentation of whether a clinician was called and, if so, what their involvement entailed. This would both help auditors review the department's actions and help the city evaluate whether more resources should be dedicated to the co-responder model.
"Any time you're trying to assess the validity of a new enterprise, you want to know whether more is appropriate or not," Gennaco said. "Based on our experience in Palo Alto and also in our experiences in other similarly-sized jurisdictions, we are very optimistic about the co-responder model."
TALK ABOUT IT
What do you think? How serious a problem is profanity used by officers in the line of duty? Talk about this issue on Town Square, the community discussion forum at PaloAltoOnline.com/square.
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