As Palo Alto seeks to add officers and replace its police chief, the city’s Independent Police Auditor prepares to examine the department’s hiring and recruiting practices.
City Council will Monday consider approving a $25,000 contract with the OIR Group to assess how the Palo Alto Police Department’s recruiting and hiring standards “reflect contemporary thinking about eligibility, suitability and candidate potential,” according to a new report from City Manager Ed Shikada. Police auditors should also update the council on recent use of force incidents and complaints against police officers.
If approved, the audit firm’s review will come a transitional period for the department, which has lost approximately 30 budgeted positions since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and has seen its workforce drop from 155 positions to 125, depending on the city budget. While the budget currently includes 79 sworn officer positions, Chief Robert Jonsen said last month that due to injuries and attrition, the city only has 59 sworn officers.
The council signaled its intention to boost police numbers when it adopted ‘community health and safety’ as one of its priorities last month, a category that includes responding to a recent increase in burglaries and other crimes throughout the city. Council members also authorized Jonsen on Feb. 7 to recruit five new officers and 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 hire a new police chief, with Jonsen announcing his intention to retire this summer and launching a campaign to replace Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith. City manager Ed Shikada told this news agency that while Jonsen is scheduled to retire in July, he will be on furlough beginning in mid-June. On Thursday night, the Human Relations Commission will hold the first in a series of “listening sessions” to solicit community feedback on a new leader. The second and third sessions will take place on March 19 and 31.
The leadership change will come at a time when the police department is under intense scrutiny and lawsuits resulting in numerous violent arrests. Retired officer Wayne Benitez is currently facing misdemeanor charges for slamming resident Gustavo Alvarez’s head on a car windshield during an arrest at Buena Vista Mobile Home Park in 2018 , an incident that led to a settlement of $572,500. Another officer, Thomas DeStefano, left the department last September after being named in numerous lawsuits, the most recent involving an arrest outside Happy Donuts in 2019 that left victim Julio Arevalo with a broken 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 sleeping in a shed during a manhunt. by the police for a kidnapping suspect.
The department has also seen tension within its ranks, with a group of six officers suing the city last year over a Black Lives Matter mural the city council commissioned in 2020 as part of its efforts to promote equity. race and diversity in the aftermath of George Floyd. murder 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 being convicted of shooting a state trooper in 1973. Last week, a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge ruled against the officers after rejecting their claim that the city’s failure to immediately remove the mural constituted ‘contrary action’ that discriminates against the officers, who are not considered as a “protective class”. One of the six officers involved in the prosecution, Christopher Moore, retired last August and issued a public letter that was sharply critical of Jonsen and other department heads.
The proposed review of department hiring and recruiting practices would mean a further expansion of the oversight role of the OIR group in Palo Alto. Last year, the board empowered the auditor to examine more types of use-of-force incidents, including those in which an officer uses a baton, chemical agent, less-lethal projectile or dog, as well as internal conflicts within the that involve discrimination, harassment or retaliation.
The OIR Group published its first report under the expanded scope last month. He also released a sheet last week summarizing the results of 10 cases he had reviewed. In seven of them, the auditor concluded either that the complaints were unfounded or that no wrongdoing had been identified. One such case involved an officer who was not wearing a mask coughing next to a man and making an offhand reference to COVID-19; he received verbal counseling but was not cited for violating department policies.
In three other cases, OIR Group identified flaws in the conduct of employees in the department. “problematic” but did not rise to the level of a policy violation.
The only incident in which a complaint against an officer was upheld was an internal complaint involving a patrol officer whose girlfriend joined him on a drive and used the police car’s computer terminal to interrogate his own name. While reviewing the case, department supervisors also overheard a conversation in which the officer alluded to illegal drug use at a recent party.
The officer was placed on administrative leave pending the investigation and later disciplined for the improper entry into the database, according to the OIR. The audit also noted that the department could not determine that the officer had used illegal drugs, although it concluded that his attendance at the party and his “tacit approval” of other people’s illegal activities constituted a violation of the policy.