The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office filed two misdemeanor charges Tuesday against a former Palo Alto Police officer more than a year after surveillance video appeared to show him striking a handcuffed resident and slamming his head against a car windshield.
Although officers are required by policy to document any uses of force, there was no mention of it in the officer’s police report following the incident.
Former Palo Alto Police Sgt. Wayne Benitez faces misdemeanor counts of assault under the color of authority and lying on a police report and could face up to two years in jail if convicted.
The video, along with police reports and audio recordings from officers’ body-worn microphones, raised questions about training within the department and whether bias played a role in the confrontation. Benitez’s body-worn microphone also appeared to capture the veteran officer mocking the resident for being gay after the arrest.
“Peace officers who use more force than necessary hurt more than the person they’re trying to arrest,” Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen said Tuesday in a statement. “They damage the deservedly excellent reputations of the vast majority of officers who work every shift to help people. And they strain the bonds with their communities who expect and deserve that police officers will protect and serve them fairly and professionally.”
Back in June, the District Attorney’s Office released a statement saying Benitez would not face criminal charges stemming from the incident. However, the office walked backed the statement a few days later, saying it would continue reviewing the evidence.
Deputy District Attorney Jason Malinsky with the District Attorney’s Public and Law Enforcement Integrity Team reviewed the case and said he was bothered by what he saw in the video.
“It was an officer using more force than necessary at a time when no force was needed,” Malinsky said.
Palo Alto Police Chief Robert Jonsen said in a written statement, “The Palo Alto Police Department appreciates the important work of the District Attorney’s Office and supports the District Attorney’s recent decision involving a former Palo Alto police officer. The community has my commitment that our police officers will continue to serve the community through professionalism, respect and integrity and work each day to ensure their trust.”
NBC Bay Area was unable to reach Benitez.
A surveillance camera mounted on the mobile home of city resident Gustavo Alvarez captured the entire incident as it unfolded in February 2018, although the video was not made public until it was first aired by NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit in July 2019.
Multiple officers responded to Alvarez’s home in the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park after an officer said he spotted Alvarez driving on a possibly suspended drivers license. When Alvarez refused to come out of the house, the officers began kicking in his door, dragged him out of the house, and slammed him against the hood of a car. The video then appears to capture Benitez, 62, strike Alvarez twice before lifting the already-handcuffed man’s head and smashing it into the car’s windshield.
Just before the blow, Benitez can be heard saying, “So you think you’re a tough guy?”
Benitez’s body-worn microphone also captured conversations with other officers after the incident, where he seemingly encouraged the use of force against residents.
“See how quickly they behave once we put our foot down?” Benitez can be heard saying to another officer. “And that’s what we don’t do enough of.”
Alvarez, 39, was originally charged with suspicion of driving under the influence, driving with a suspended license, and resisting arrest, but prosecutors later dropped the charges.
Alvarez filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the department in 2019, and later settled the case for $572,500. The settlement also stipulated every Palo Alto officer undergo mandatory LGBTQ training and required Benitez to write a letter of apology.