‘See How Quickly They Behave Once We Put Our Foot Down?’
A federal lawsuit claims that Palo Alto, California, police falsely detained, arrested, and beat a gay Latinx man—then boasted about their brutality.
On Feb. 17, 2018, Officer Christopher Conde saw a 2002 Ford Focus in the 600 block of Los Robles Avenue in Palo Alto, California, that he believed was driven by Gustavo Alvarez. Alvarez’s driver’s license had been suspended in the past, so Conde followed the car but made no effort to stop it until after Alvarez arrived at the mobile home park where he resided.
Conde approached Alvarez in the driveway and told him that he saw him at the wheel and suspected that he had a suspended license. He then attempted to detain Alvarez near his parked vehicle, but Alvarez said, “Why are you going to detain me? For what?”
Alvarez argued with Conde about whether he had actually seen him in the vehicle and then walked into his mobile home and shut the door behind him.
Conde called for backup and at least four officers showed up.
But Alvarez refused to leave his home and several officers banged on his trailer door, yelling for him to “get the fuck out.” One officer finally kicked the door in and Alvarez was pulled out of his home.
In video of the incident captured by Alvarez’s home surveillance camera and obtained by The Appeal, Sgt. Wayne Benitez can be seen striking him and slamming his face against his car.
“Oh, my God. I’m bleeding,” Alvarez said.
“You’re gonna be bleeding a whole lot more,” Benitez responded.
Alvarez said the officers hurled insults at him as they assaulted him. Alvarez, an openly gay Latinx man, said officers asked him if he was a “tough guy.”
In the surveillance video, Benitez also boasted: “See how quickly they behave once we put our foot down? And that’s what we don’t do enough of.”
Even though neither blood nor field sobriety tests were conducted, Alvarez was charged with DUI, driving on a suspended license, and resisting arrest. In a supplemental report filed to support criminal charges against Alvarez, Benitez wrote that officers only pulled Alvarez from his home by his shirt and placed him on the hood of the car so that he could be handcuffed. “No other force was used on Alvarez,” Benitez wrote. Alvarez then spent approximately two weeks in the Santa Clara County jail—where he said he pulled out a tooth knocked loose during the assault—until the county district attorney, Jeff Rosen, dismissed all the charges against him.
In April, Alvarez filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Palo Alto police. In the lawsuit, he alleges that he was unlawfully detained, assaulted, and abused by officers and they did so because of his sexual orientation. In an audio recording from Benitez’s body camera, Benitez can be heard talking to other officers after the arrest, saying “he’s gay.” Other officers laughed and one raised the pitch of his voice and said, “Come and get me.”
The lawsuit also claims that the officers did not know the status of Alvarez’s license or who was at the wheel when his vehicle was spotted in February 2018 and that they “concocted a criminal case against [him].”
In late July, Benitez and Conde responded to Alvarez’s complaint. In federal court filings, they argued that Alvarez provoked the assault and Benitez acted in self-defense.
Cody Salfen, Alvarez’s attorney, told The Appeal that Alvarez’s home is in a poor section of Palo Alto, the epicenter of Silicon Valley. The median household income in the city is nearly $150,000, or nearly three times the national average, and there is enormous income inequality. Salfen said his client would not have faced the same treatment by law enforcement in more affluent parts of the city.
“Not a single one of the officers who had a front-row seat to this intervened to stop this,” Salfen said. “Not a single one of those officers stepped up to the plate and reported this to a supervisor. … It’s very clear that this speaks a broader culture inside this agency where that kind of behavior is not only tolerated, it’s encouraged.”
Salfen also represented Alvarez in his criminal case and said he has received numerous complaints from residents of the trailer park where Alvarez resides about similar conduct by Palo Alto police.
One of the officers named in Alvarez’s lawsuit is Thomas DeStefano, who was also a defendant in a 2014 complaint brought in federal court by Tyler Harney, who said police injured him during a traffic stop. Harney claimed that police pushed him against a squad car and then he went into convulsions from a seizure disorder. He alleged that one officer said “stop, or I’m going to break your arm” when several officers twisted his arm behind his back as they forced him to the ground.
According to the lawsuit, Harney suffered a severe broken arm and shoulder from the incident. In February 2016, Palo Alto paid Harney $250,000 to settle the case.
In 2018, Palo Alto paid $250,000 to Tajae Murray, who was mauled by a police dog when officers stopped him while he walked on a public street. According to the lawsuit, the officers did not have probable cause to stop Murray, who was 16 at the time of the incident, and they stood and watched the dog attack him.
Police are also facing a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in February 2018 by Mahmoud Elsayed, a 63-year-old physically and mentally disabled man who claims they falsely arrested him in 2016 when he was wrongly identified as the person who broke an outdoor house light near his former home.
A witness told police she saw a white man matching the description of the perpetrator, but police instead arrested Elsayed, an Arab American, and charged him with a felony.
When The Appeal asked City Manager Ed Shikada about the Alvarez case, he wrote in an email that he would not comment because of ongoing litigation but “the public should know that the Police Department has procedures to investigate allegations of misconduct thoroughly and to hold officers accountable if misconduct is determined to have occurred.”
Salfen, meanwhile, told the Appeal that Alvarez continues to be harassed by Palo Alto police, but he is hopeful that the lawsuit can bring him relief.
“He’s trying to prevent this from happening again to him and he’s also trying to implement some form of change within that agency,” Salfen said. “He’s a member of this community. He takes pride in taking care of other people in his community. He’s seen others victimized in the same way by this agency and he wants to effect some kind of change.”