In announcing its decision to settle, Palo Alto went out of its way to reference plaintiff Gustavo Alvarez’ criminal record.
Palo Alto has settled a lawsuit with a gay resident who says local police violated his civil rights.
The Mercury News reports that the settlement was approved by the Palo Alto City Council in a closed-door meeting earlier this week. As part of the agreement, The California city will pay $572,500 to Gustavo Alvarez, who filed the complaint nearly a year ago.
The police department will also send one of its officers to an “LGBTQ awareness law enforcement course at the Napa Valley College Criminal Justice Training Center.” Afterwards, that same officer will institute and direct a two-hour-long LGBTQ awareness program for all sworn members of Palo Alto P.D.
San Jose-based attorney Cody Salfen said the settlement and Palo Alto’s pledge to reform is, at the very least, a step in the right direction.
“This case isn’t going to change the culture within the department overnight,” Salfen said. “But this settlement is definitely a starting point. It sends a message to every one of those officers that there is a problem and the time to change is now.”
While Salfen may have been enthused by the case’s outcome, Palo Alto and its police department appear to have settled only reluctantly. In a statement that practically transcends the reasonable limits of passive-aggressiveness, Palo Alto and law enforcement leaders said they reached an agreement only to “minimize the burden and expense of federal litigation.”
The statement, partially reprinted by the Mercury News, makes a point to emphasize Alvarez’ criminal record, which includes convictions for grand theft, burglary and driving under the influence.
“While the City and Police Department sharply dispute the vast majority of Mr. Alvarez’ claims and have deep concerns about Mr. Alvarez’ continuing criminal behavior, the City believes that this resolution is in the best interests of all involved,” the statement said.
Alvarez’ suit, recounted by the Mercury News, does, in fact, make hard-to-believe claims. But many of them were substantiated by nigh-irrefutable evidence obtained months after Alvarez’ arrest.
In his complaint—which was filed in April of 2018—Alvarez says he was arrested in February of the same year. The suit says that Alvarez, who was at home, was confronted by officers who kicked down his door, dragged him outside, and then slammed his head against a car windshield.
He was then informed he was under arrest for driving with a suspended license.
Alvarez said, in his suit, that officers knew he was gay. They “mocked, made fun of and humiliated him,” the arrest “motivated by their hatred and prejudice of homosexual males.”
All the charges filed against Alvarez were later dismissed. Video and audio evidence later emerged substantiating many of Alvarez’ claims, including that he’d been dragged out of his house and been slammed against a car windshield. In one clip, Sgt. Wayne Benitez can be heard explaining to another officer that the department doesn’t “put [its] foot down” often enough.
“They very clearly committed crimes on camera in the course and scope of their job as a police officer [sic],” Salfen said. “That’s indicative of an agency that failed to take action, to properly discipline.”
After a tow truck arrives to take away Alvarez’ car, an audio recording captured Benitez telling the service driver that is Alvarez is gay before imitating his voice.
“The peace officers who were involved in this situation have no business being peace officers,” Salfen said.
NBC-Bay Area and The Mercury News both note that most of the officers involved in Alvarez’ arrest remain employed by Palo Alto. The only exception is Benitez.
Benitez, says The Mercury News, has since left the department—now retired, he’d drawing a pension of nearly $120,000 per year.
“Obviously there is a culture in the department that tolerates and encouraged civil rights violations,” Salfen said. “And that is extremely disturbing because every day that one of those officers continue to be employed by the department is another day that the agency has not changed for the better.”