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By Diana Diamond

Should Palo Alto police be reformed? “It can’t happen here” -- or can it?

Uploaded: Jun 9, 2020

“It can’t happen here,” two Palo Alto city council members said at Monday’s meeting when discussing the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and other police conduct.

But it almost did happen here. Twice.

In 2005, then Police Chief Lynne Johnson said that a group of anarchists would be coming to Palo Alto -- anywhere from 50 to 800 – and the city had to be prepared for their arrival. She urged residents to stay home that Saturday, June 25 evening. And she asked for help from police in neighboring cities.

Help arrived. By 7 p.m., a helicopter swirled above University Avenue, with police in megaphones leaning out to direct the crowds. “The anarchists are on their way,” we heard.

I was covering the story that night and when I arrived downtown. I was amazed and afraid of what I saw. Hundreds of police stood shoulder to shoulder along University, from Ramona Street to Middlefield Road, those with pistols in front and then police with rifles behind them, and then officers on horses for a couple of rows. Many had shields. They were lined up across the entire street, from storefront to storefront. Lytton and Hamilton Avenues were also filled with police. Barriers prohibited entrance onto University.

I saw this overwhelming number of police suddenly in my downtown. I feared they were going to overtake our city. The helicopter continued to circle above and there were police cars with flashing lights and fire trucks at the end of streets.

About 50 young anarchists, dressed in black, entered the downtown and were directed to Lytton Plaza, where they calmly sat for the next two hours.

I asked one of the policemen to direct me to an officer in charge, showing him my press badge, including one from the sheriff’s office. “Lady, get back immediately and get behind that line,” he told me. “But I want to talk to your leader to see why there are so many of you out here,” I replied. “Get back or I will have you arrested,” he yelled, as he raised his rifle.

I walked over to the anarchists. They looked frightened. “We are here to protest corporation policies and the Iraq War,” one told me. He seemed all of 19.

Overreaction to an anarchist peaceful assembly? It certainly was but our police chief wanted to ensure the town was safe. It was, thanks to the mob of police or the frightened anarchists. Someone told me later the overtime for police cost about $1 million, but no one made an issue of that. What was the big problem for me is how quickly and quietly our city could turn into a police state. Since most residents stayed home, few knew what happened.

When I saw the police in full gear go after the peaceful protesters at Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., to clear the square so President Trump could walk to a church for a photo-op, holding up a black bible (backward), thoughts of what happened here on June 25 years ago came racing back. Except in D.C., one station ran a video of these rows of armed troops who suddenly started to run after the demonstrators, batons held high in hand, while tear gas and flash bangs were heard exploding at the square.

It happened there.

The second incident in Palo Alto occurred in July 2019. Police agent Thomas DeStefano allegedly “violently attacked” Julio Averalo, The police have not yet released the tape of that incident, as they are supposed to by California law. DeStefano had been previously accused of breaking a man’s arm in a 2013 traffic stop. The city settled that suit for $250,000.

There are a series of other “incidents,” such as one last November when Gustavo Alvarez was beaten by a Palo Alto police officer and it was recorded on a smart phone. Alvarez’s head was knocked on the hood of a car, and the officer, Sgt. Wayne Benitez, mocked him for being gay. Alvarez and his attorneys received a $572,000 cash settlement from the city, according to a Weekly story, Benitez has retired and is be getting a pension of $9,866.41 per month for life. City Manager Ed Shikada would not say whether Benitez retired or was fired.

So yes, we have some trouble right here in River City.

One other problem that disturbs me is the increasing lack of transparency in this city in providing information or videos on cases involving the police.

The city council is now discussing police reform, and at this past Monday’s meeting, it asked thestaff (!) to return next week with a plan for improving police policies, reviewing its hiring practices and launching a new initiative to promote diversity and inclusion throughout the city. This should be a city council job. Both Mayor Adrian Fine and City Manager Ed Shikada declared Palo Alto should be proactive and transparent, but neither provided any details. If staff draws up the changes, the "staff" probably includes the city manager, the police chief and the city attorney, who , presumably, all like things the way they are now.

And what about barring use of choke holds? I'd like to see that included in the changes.

My reaction? Our transparency over police issues is becoming more opaque every day, in a very disturbing way. Two years ago, police incidents were immediately sent to a police-auditing firm in southern California that did a wonderful job of investigating any incident and reporting back to the city council and the public. But this past year the city council agreed to a change proposed by Shikada and City Attorney Molly Stump to let the city’s HR department handle disputes and incidents involving police officers, instead of the southern CA auditor. And once something goes to HR, it becomes a personnel matter that the public can’t know anything about.

So what’s going to happen in our city? Will this issue softly go away, or will there be real reforms? Or can it happen here?