The recently released video of a Palo Alto officer directing a police canine to attack a Mountain View resident who was sleeping in a backyard shed last year has brought fresh scrutiny to the department's canine program as well as public calls for the firing of the officer involved in the attack to get fired.
The footage, which the Police Department released on March 16, shows police Agent Nick Enberg yelling commands while the police dog in his charge approaches Joel Alejo, a 37-year-old resident who appears to be sleeping on the floor of a backyard shed in Mountain View. The police dog then bites Alejo in the leg and clamps down on the leg for about a minute before other police officers step in, bring Alejo down and handcuff him.
In his complaint against the city, Alejo claimed he has suffered "extreme pain, bleeding, bruising and other damages" during the attack. But while he is seeking $20 million in damages from Palo Alto, the officer who directed the dog during the attack will not be charged with any crimes, the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office said Tuesday.
Assistant District Attorney Brian Welch said in a statement that because Alejo did not suffer injuries likely to result in his death, the incident did not come within the county's Officer-Involved Incident Protocol, which governs incidents that involve great bodily injury or fatalities. Welch said the office learned about the incident after the Palo Alto Police Department provided the office with the incident reports.
"Based on our review of the case materials, we have concluded that Agent Enberg's use of his police dog did not result in the use of excessive force under the color of authority," Welch said in the statement.
Some residents disagree. On March 22, six days after the body camera footage of the Alejo attack was publicly released, the City Council and City Manager Ed Shikada heard from residents and police watchdogs who urged them to fire Enberg and to reevaluate the city's canine program. Salim Damerdji, a Mountain View resident, demanded discipline for the officers involved in the canine attack on Alejo, whom the officers had mistaken for a suspect in a kidnapping case. Damerdji called the footage of the incident "disturbing."
"Not only did this man wake up to being attacked by a canine unit being commanded by Officer Enberg to attack the man, but then as he was being arrested another officer told him to stop resisting while he was still being attacked by this canine … It's really clear there is something messed up in the Palo Alto Police Department," Damerdji said.
Palo Alto resident Adam Schwartz called the video footage of the Alejo attack "shocking and disturbing and very hard to watch."
"It is inherently wrong for the city to issue dogs to its police officer and allow the officer to command the dogs to bite people," Schwartz told the council at the March 22 meeting. "This is the use of police dogs that should be absolutely contrary to policy and not allowed."
Palo Alto leaders would not say whether any of the officers involved in the incident have faced or will face any discipline. Meghan Horrigan-Taylor, the city's chief communications officer, said that while the city "cannot comment on employee matters of this nature," the city's independent police auditor will review the case and publish a report with its findings about the officer's conduct and the city's response. Shikada responded to public comments by urging residents to hold him, rather than Enberg, accountable.
"Rather than claiming for the firing of any individual officer, that accountability is appropriately brought to myself," Shikada said at the March 22 meeting.
But notwithstanding the increased scrutiny, Palo Alto has no plans to scale back the police canine program, which includes two German shepherds and their two human handlers. A new report from Palo Alto police notes that the department has employed police dogs for more than 30 years. Both of the agency's current dogs are trained for basic patrol services (which includes searching for and apprehending people) and one of them is certified in detecting explosives.
The report notes that police dogs can be used in a variety of circumstances, including searching in locations not safe for officers and encouraging voluntary compliance by their mere presence.
According to the report, the department's two canine teams had been deployed 350 times between 2018 and 2020 to search for people or evidence, apprehend a suspect, execute a warrant or detect explosives. Of those 350 deployments, five had resulted in a canine biting or holding the suspect, the report states.
"The vast majority of the time, the canine team is able to assist in finding the wanted person without direct contact with the person," the report states.
The report, which the council is scheduled to discuss at an April 5 study session on policing, also notes that both the dog and the officer on each canine team have to undergo a four-week, state-certified course and then participate in ongoing regional training with other canine units twice monthly. This, according to the city, adds up to about 60 hours of training each month for the team.
"For police dogs that are selected for specialty assignments (like explosive detection), additional multi-week training schools and ongoing qualifications are required," the report states. "All training for each canine team is documented and retained as part of the handler's personnel file."
Palo Alto police had sent the canine unit to Mountain View on June 25 after receiving a request for assistance with a kidnapping case. They were looking for a man who allegedly kidnapped his ex-girlfriend and drove away with her in a stolen car before pushing her out, taking her phone and running away, according to the Mountain View Police Department.
Believing that the man ran into a residential area, officers then reportedly asked a neighbor if they could search the backyard. After getting consent, they found the shed with Alejo inside. They confirmed shortly after the dog attack that he was not the man they were looking for.