Civil Rights Claim Against Palo Alto PD Raises More Questions About Use of Force, Transparency

It's the third time one Palo Alto officer has been named in a civil rights claim.

One Palo Alto officer has been named in a third civil rights lawsuit, raising questions and increasing concerns about the department's transparency and use of force. Stephen Stock reports.

Julio Arevalo said he just wanted to get his son a donut when he left his home at the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park late one night last July.

He never came home with that donut.

In the morning, Arevalo says he woke up handcuffed to a hospital bed with a fractured bone in his face and a brace around his neck.

While Arevalo says he doesn’t remember any of it, surveillance video from the donut shop obtained by Cody Salfen, Arevalo's attorney, captured the encounter with Palo Alto police officer Agent Thomas DeStefano Jr..

"[DeStefano] ended up slamming Julio on the ground and shattering his orbital bone and knocked him out completely cold," Salfen said. "And all for essentially nothing."

Attorney Cody Salfen walks us through the surveillance video he obtained of Arevalo’s encounter with a Palo Alto police officer.

Cody Salfen, Julio Arevalo's attorney, walks us through the surveillance video he obtained of his client's encounter with a Palo Alto police officer

DeStefano’s police report filed after the incident stated the officer thought he saw Arevalo involved in a drug deal and that Arevalo, who was on probation at the time, tried walking away from the officer when he tried to detain him.

The video shows DeStefano push Arevalo up against a fence, and when Arevalo appears to resist attempts to handcuff him, DeStefano throws Arevalo to the ground. In the video, Arevalo appears to go limp as his head hits the concrete. The next thing Arevalo said he remembers is waking up in the hospital.

The surveillance video, which NBC Bay Area reviewed in its entirety, does not appear to show any potential drug deal.

"There’s a clearly fabricated story in the police report that agent DeStefano puts together as a means of trying to justify his unlawful detention of Julio," Salfen said. "That includes allegations that there was a hand-to-hand drug transaction."

Julio Arevalo in the hospital after his encounter with Palo Alto police officer Thomas Destefano Jr. outside of Happy Donuts in Palo Alto in early July.

No drugs were found on Arevalo, according to the police report, and no criminal charges have been filed in the case.

Click Here to Read the Police Report from the Incident

Arevalo filed a civil rights claim against the city in November, accusing Agent DeStefano of violently attacking him. The city has yet to respond to that claim.

“I should have just stayed home, but my son, you know, I wanted to give [my son] what he wants,” said Arevalo. “I went to get him a donut and I never came back.”

“I went crazy. I started praying, begging God for answers,” said Romy Arevalo, Julio’s mother, who found out about her son the next day.

The Palo Alto Police Department declined multiple requests from NBC Bay Area to discuss the case or any previous incidents involving DeStefano.

Surveillance video obtained by Arevalo’s attorney Cody Salfen captured the entire late-night encounter between Julio Arevalo and Palo Alto police officer Agent Thomas DeStefano Jr. outside of a donut shop.

Watch the entire encounter between Arevalo and Agent DeStefano here

NBC Bay Area wanted to review footage from DeStefano’s body-worn camera to see exactly what led up to the incident, and why DeStefano tried detaining Arevalo in the first place. But the Palo Alto Police Department has either denied or ignored multiple public records requests from NBC Bay Area to obtain that footage – records they are required to provide by law.

The Investigative Unit sat down with California Assemblymember Phil Ting, who authored a new law requiring police officer body-worn camera footage to be released in a timely fashion after police shootings or incidents involving serious bodily injury. The law allows law enforcement agencies to withhold the video if they can provide a specific reason as to why such a release might harm an investigation, but not declare a blanket exemption because the case is still under investigation.

Palo Alto’s Police Department has yet to give any reason as to why it will not release Officer DeStefano’s body-worn camera video in Arevalo’s case, other than saying the case remains under investigation.

Assemblymember Ting declined to discuss the specifics of Arevalo’s case, but said it’s troubling when police departments do not appear to comply with the new law.

“I think it’s disappointing,” said Ting. “Because obviously I understand that there’s a certain amount of tension between police departments and the communities that they serve, but I think ultimately this transparency makes everybody better.”

Questions surrounding use of force are not new for Palo Alto’s police department.

Earlier this year, NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit obtained surveillance video capturing Palo Alto officers forcibly removing city resident Gustavo Alvarez from his home over a possible suspended driver’s license. DeStefano was one of the officers involved in that incident, and the video captured another officer, Sgt. Wayne Benitez, slamming Alvarez’s head into a car windshield.

Home surveillance video obtained by NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit shows Palo Alto police officers pulling Gustavo Alvarez from his home in the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park before he says he was beaten and unjustifiably arrested on suspicion of driving with a suspended license.

You can watch Gustavo Alvarez's story here

The city recently settled a civil rights lawsuit involving that case, paying out nearly $600,000 and agreeing to send all of its officers to LGBTQ sensitivity training after Benitez’s body-worn microphone seemingly captured him mocking Alvarez for being gay. Benitez recently retired from the police department, and also was required to write a letter of apology to Alvarez under the terms of the settlement agreement.

Salfen was also the attorney in that case.

“This is part of a broader pattern and practice that is very clearly going on, on a semi-daily basis with the Palo Alto Police Department,” Salfen said.

But questions about Agent DeStefano’s use of force date back even further.

“I’d really like to see DeStefano fired,” said Laney Harney, whose son Tyler encountered Agent DeStefano in 2013.

Tyler, who had missed a court date for a minor marijuana possession charge, was arrested by DeStefano in 2013 while being driven home by friends as he showed signs of an oncoming elliptic seizure. DeStefano pulled the car over and then pulled Tyler out of the car.

Harney said her son began convulsing as DeStefano was arresting him, and a lawsuit later filed against the city said DeStefano broke Harney’s arm at the shoulder during the encounter. Palo Alto settled that lawsuit by paying out $250,000 while not admitting any wrongdoing.

Laney Harney says her son has never recovered physically from the broken shoulder and that Tyler still has trouble getting past the incident mentally.

“For the unfortunate people who have to have a run in with police, you can’t trust them,” Laney Harney said. “You can’t trust them in Palo Alto.”

Romy Arevalo, Julio’s mother, expressed a similar sentiment.

“I just want justice,” Romy Arevalo said in Spanish. “If we don’t do anything about it, it’s just going to keep happening with innocent people.”

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