The case, now one-and-a-half years old, is still under internal investigation, according to the police. The officer, Sgt. Wayne Benitez, who banged the resident Gustavo Alvarado’s head, is on leave, but the other three officers involved are still working full-time at the department. None of them interfered in or tried to stop the head banging; they did break down the door to Alvarado’s residence at Buena Vista.
The incident was filmed by Alvarado’s home surveillance system. The police wore their microphones but not the video equipment they are provided to document what occurred, nor were the officers’ cars videos turned on.
Alvarez was charged with driving under the influence, driving with a suspended license and resisting an officer. But the charges were later dismissed by the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office because of insufficient evidence. The case has now resulted in a federal lawsuit against the Palo Alto Police Department.
Alvarez’s lawyers also allege that the police involved were anti-gay -- Alvarez is gay. He’s also racist, according to the lawyers, alleging there may be a bias by this officer against the non-whites who live in the mobile home park.
Cody Salfen, one of two of Alvarez’s attorneys, labeled the police actions as “intentional misconduct,” and an “intentional cover-up.”
The case is full of contradictions by the police, and I have a lot of questions about it. When I called Janine Del La Vega, Palo Alto’s police information officer, for answers, she said she could not comment or provide answers since the case is under litigation. She apologized, but would not comment on anything I asked except confirm that the three other officers were still working. But when I asked whether Alvarez’s driver’s license had been suspended, as the police claimed when questioning him, she said she could not answer. To me, that’s an answerable fact that certainly can’t interfere with pending litigation.
So I will raise my questions here. I do urge you to view the footage of the arrest first (url at the end of first paragraph), so you can better understand why I am asking these questions. My account of what happened is primarily based on this video.
1) When breaking down the door Alvarez had gone into after the policeman, Officer Christopher Conde, had asked him at the mobile park, the police said they didn’t need a search warrant to enter the unit Alvarez went into. Is that true?
2) Conde, who followed Alvarez’s car into the mobile home park, told Alvarez he was followed because he was driving with a suspended license. Was he and was the license suspended? Conde later admitted he didn’t know if the suspension still was in effect. He also told Alvarez he didn’t know if Alvarez was driving his own car – he just recognized the license plates.
3) Is striking a person and then banging his head into a car windshield a cause for dismissal? If so, how come Sgt. Wayne Benitez is still on leave?
4) Is Benitez still being paid while on leave?
5) How long will the investigation take to be completed? (The incident occurred 18 months ago.)
6) Police reports filed by Sgt. Benitez and the other three officers did not contain any mention of the violence involved in the incident. Was this a cover-up? And once the city found out through the dismissal of charges against Alvarez in late 2018, why were the records filed not accompanied by an addendum (or whatever) to indicate violence occurred?
7) Why did the other officers at the scene say and do nothing while Benitez’s head was knocked? What is police policy on the responsibility of other officers in a conflict?
8) After Alvarez was taken away, an elderly man who did not speak English came out to complain that his door had been busted. He was told by the police to go back inside but evidently did not understand what they were saying. One policeman told him, “You broke your own door”; another told the man he was “defying the police.” I’m not sure how or why. “We could charge him for a crime,” the officer said to a younger man acting as translator, “but we’re not going to do that. He can just go and fix his own door – that can be his punishment. He’s lucky he’s not going to jail. He should be going to jail.” Is this a threat or unwarranted harassment? Is this anger toward Buena Vista residents?
9) The police did have recordings of the conversations that took place but did not have their video cameras turned on, nor were the police cars videos turned on. Is it optional for a policeman to decide when to record an incident?
10) Was this a case of homophobia? The police knew Alvarez was gay from previous contacts, and when the tow truck came to take away Alvarez’s car, Sgt. Benitez told the driver, “He’s (Alvarez) gay,” and raised his voice higher to evidently mimic Alvarez.
As my questions show, there are a lot of unanswered issues in this case and a lot of problems that should be answered by the city.
The Police Department’s record has been good the past few years, and residents, including me, trust the police – but certainly not blindly and not when the department is not transparent. As a community, we need to find out more – and hope that this is an isolated incident