A gay man who sued the Palo Alto Police Department in California just settled for $572,000.
Gustavo Alvarez said that police officers used excessive force when he was arrested for allegedly driving with a suspended license in February 2018. His lawyers released video of the beating earlier this year.
The settlement with the city also requires all police officers in the department to undergo LGBTQ sensitivity training and former Sgt. Wayne Benitez – one of the officers involved in Alvarez’s arrest – will have to write an apology that will be made public.
“This case isn’t going to change the culture within the department overnight,” Alvarez’s attorney Cody Salfen told Mercury News. “But this settlement is definitely a starting point. It sends a message to every one of those officers that there is a problem and the time to change it is now.”
The city and police department released a statement saying that they still “sharply dispute” Alvarez’s claims but settled the case to “minimize the burden and expense of federal litigation.”
The incident occurred when Officer Christopher Conde spotted Alvarez’s car on the road, even though he believed that Alvarez’s license was suspended. So he followed Alvarez home.
Conde confronted Alvarez but admitted that he didn’t see who was driving the car, so Alvarez went into his home. Conde called for backup, and several officers, including Sgt. Benitez, came to help remove Alvarez from his home. Alvarez had set up a security camera outside his door, so this was caught on video.
The officers broke down Alvarez’s door and dragged him outside and put him in cuffs. Benitez hit Alvarez and slammed him against his car’s windshield.
“You think you’re a tough guy now?” the sergeant asked Alvarez. After telling officers that he was bleeding, Benitez threatened him further, saying, “You’re going to be bleeding a whole lot more.”
“See how well they behave when we put our foot down?” Benitez said to another officer. “That’s what we don’t do enough of.”
“He’s gay,” Benitez said to another officer, who laughed and responded by calling Alvarez a “frickin’ low life.” Benitez then called for Alvarez’s car to be towed. When the tow truck driver showed up, Benitez reenacted Alvarez’s arrest, using a high-pitch voice to mock him and mentioned his sexuality.
The charges against Alvarez were dismissed due to lack of evidence.
He sued the police department, alleging excessive force and that the police officers were “motivated by their hatred and prejudice of homosexual males.”
As part of the settlement, an officer at the department will have to attend a training course at the Napa Valley College Criminal Justice Training Center, and then they will conduct two-hour training sessions for all the other officers in the department. The training will include explanations of LGBTQ terms, key points in LGBTQ history, and how violence and hate crimes affect LGBTQ people.
Benitez was placed on administrative leave by the department after the lawsuit was filed and video was released. He retired last month after 19 years on the force and is receiving a pension of over a hundred thousand dollars a year.
The other officers in the video are still working for the department.