Palo Alto cop texted racy photo of suspect

A Palo Alto police detective texted a photo of a “scantily clad” female suspect to a supervisor for no legitimate law enforcement reason and the supervisor took more than two weeks to report it, a police auditor said Wednesday.

A police sergeant, fearing the private photo might be accidentally disseminated, then asked the supervisor to delete the photo without first preserving it as potential evidence, according to Palo Alto police auditor Michael Gennaco.

The unnamed Palo Alto police detective who texted the photo of the adult female suspect was disciplined internally by the police department, although public employee privacy rules prohibit release of the details, Gennaco said:

“It was bad judgment and he [the detective] was held accountable.”

Gennaco, who with Stephen Connolly of the Pasadena-based OIR Group, currently serve as the department’s independent police auditors.

Since the photo involved was distributed internally to another detective, the case was not seen as serious, but had it been disseminated publicly the damage would have been greater and so could the penalty given the detective, Gennaco said.

The case, revealed in an audit report of Palo Alto police released today to the City Council, concerned an investigation into a woman arrested in an alleged burglary during the first six months of this year, the auditors stated.

A police detective was reviewing digital photographs on the suspect’s cell phone to see if there were pictures of a person she was transferring stolen property to or any other photos that might be useful to the investigation, according to the auditors. On the phone, “the detective located a photograph of the arrestee in which she was scantily clad,” the auditors stated.

The detective sent that photo by text message to the acting supervising detective who was also working on the burglary probe, they said.

When the woman received her phone back and the detectives asked her to provide information about the person who had received stolen property from her, she noticed the text had been sent and complained to a detective not involved in the investigation, the auditors said.

The acting supervisor of the first detective waited for more than two weeks to report the photo text message to a sergeant, who told the supervisor he should have reported it more promptly and then launched an internal investigation into it, the auditors said.

The Police Department’s investigation “concluded that there was no legitimate law enforcement reason for the detective ‘texting’ the photograph in the way and manner that he did” and it could have “left someone with the impression that is was sent as a joke,” the auditors said.

The department determined that the detective “exercised poor judgment” in sending the photo, it “was unbecoming for an officer and disrespectful to the arrestee” and “reflected unfavorably” on the department, the auditors said.

Gennaco and Connolly stated that police also concluded the detective had violated its policies and “and held him accountable for the transgression.”

The auditors themselves described the department’s investigation as “thorough” and agreed with its disciplining the detective, but added that the supervisor should have informed police command immediately about the texting so that an investigation could have started right away.

The sergeant who learned of the photo should not have had the supervisor delete it before preserving it as evidence, even though the sergeant’s “intentions were good” in wanting to prevent it from being circulated, they said.

They further criticized detectives for “laxity of vigilance” for not watching the suspect closely after giving her the phone back to help them find a picture of her accomplice and then permitting her to scroll through the phone and possibly erase photos of evidentiary value.

The Palo Alto case was revealed after a California Highway Patrol Officer pleaded not guilty on Nov. 14 in Contra Costa County Superior Court to misdemeanor charges of stealing sexually explicit photos from the phone of a female DUI suspect and copying the photos for dissemination to others.

The victim, a 23-year-old woman, reported that a half dozen nude and semi-nude photos of her were sent without her permission from her phone to an unknown number. The number was later traced to CHP Officer Sean Harrington after he arrested her in San Ramon on Aug. 29, according to the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office.

Cynthia Sumida, a spokeswoman for the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office, in response to a question about whether potential charges against the Palo Alto detective were contemplated, stated in an email that the office was leaving comments about the case to Lt. Zach Perron, spokesman for the city’s police department.

Molly Stump, Palo Alto’s city attorney, said that while the CHP officer’s case may have “some parallels superficially” to the Palo Alto case, “they are actually quite different in scope,” due to fact there was only one photo and “the context of what occurred.”