Palo Alto

Palo Alto Police Officer Accused of Excessive Force Gone from Department

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A Palo Alto police officer at the center of multiple excessive force allegations is no longer with the department, NBC Bay Area has independently confirmed.

Agent Thomas DeStefano’s last day on the job was September 7, as first reported by Palo Alto Online. A city spokesperson declined to state whether he was terminated or left the position on his own.

DeStefano was involved in three separate arrests that led to federal civil rights lawsuits against the city during his time in Palo Alto, two of which have been settled.

A law firm representing DeStefano in a recent lawsuit did not immediately return Tuesday phone call from NBC Bay Area and DeStefano has never spoken to NBC Bay Area in our previous reporting on the former officer.

“It’s important that people aren’t going to be injured by him,” said San Jose attorney Cody Salfen, who filed two of those lawsuits. “Agent DeStefano’s departure from the City of Palo Alto is long overdue and I can say with absolute certainty that individuals in the City of Palo Alto are safer.”

In one of those cases, Salfen represented Palo Alto resident Julio Arevalo, who accused DeStefano of excessive force during a late-night encounter outside a local donut shop

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 as he tried detaining him.

Surveillance video from the donut shop shows DeStefano push Arevalo up against a fence, and when Arevalo appears to resist attempts to handcuff him, the officer throws Arevalo to the ground, breaking a bone in his face. Arevalo appears to go limp as his head hits the concrete.

No drugs were ever found by police.

Just one year earlier, DeStefano was involved in another high-profile case stemming from the arrest of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park resident Gustavo Alvarez.

NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit obtained surveillance video of DeStefano and other Palo Alto officers forcibly pulling Alvarez from his mobile home over a possible suspended driver’s license.

The video shows another officer on scene, Sgt. Wayne Benitez, slam Alvarez’s head into a car windshield. Benitez’s body-worn microphone later appeared to capture the officer mocking Alvarez for being gay.

Benitez was later charged with assault and the city settled the lawsuit for $572,000. Every officer in the department was required to attend LGBTQ sensitivity training.

Questions about DeStefano’s conduct date back to at least 2013, when he was accused of breaking the arm of a man suffering an epileptic seizure during a traffic stop.

The city settled the lawsuit for $250,000 without admitting any wrongdoing.

In 2017, DeStefano was suspected of crashing into his neighbor’s car and taking off without leaving a note or reporting the accident, according to a San Jose police report. DeStefano smelled of alcohol when officers contacted him at his home after the crash, according to the report. Officers wrote that DeStefano was uncooperative with their investigation and had changed his story several times during their interview. Officers never conducted a DUI investigation because time had already passed between the crash and the time officers arrived at DeStefano’s home, according to the report.

Although a misdemeanor hit and run charge was later dismissed, DeStefano pleaded guilty to an infraction and kept his job with the Palo Alto Police Department.

This is a developing story. Check back later for updates.

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