Can Anaheim Repair a Broken Trust With Latino Community?

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After decades of feeling at best marginalized and at worst oppressed in their own neighborhoods, members of Anaheim’s Latino community had reason to believe in recent times that they had not only gained some acceptance but even a measure of respect from the city’s largely white power structure.

The city seemed to have come a long way from a past when reports of police brutality were common and the Anaheim Police Department had at one point, with the blessing of the Anaheim City Council, compiled dossiers on Latino leaders that linked them to suspected criminals.

Under John Welter, who became police chief in 2004, the department made reforms and began reaching out to Latino neighborhoods in ways that fostered goodwill, not confrontation, according to Latino leaders.

“He came to us with a philosophy of community policing,” said Jose Moreno, president of the Latino group Los Amigos of Orange County. “[He asked] what can we do to gain your trust?”

But the edges of this fragile trust had begun to fray over the past few years, with Latino residents attending council meetings to complain about police shootings in their neighborhoods. It unraveled completely two weekends ago when police shot two young Latinos on consecutive days.

Residents immediately took to the streets and clashed with police in the Anna Drive neighborhood. In that July 21 confrontation, police fired beanbag bullets and unleashed a dog into a crowd of protesters. Then, on July 24, protesters turned the downtown into a riot zone after being denied entrance to the City Council meeting because the chambers were filled to capacity.

News reports continue to indicate that the relationship between the police department and the city’s Latino communities is disintegrating. Last Friday, residents of Anna Drive told The Orange County Register that officers tried to intimidate them into fabricating eyewitness accounts of events surrounding the Diaz shooting.

“Something is really happening that is dispelling the serenity we had in Anaheim,” said Amin David, former president of Los Amigos.

In light of these explosive events, attention has focused on city officials, longtime Latino advocates and a new generation of community activists. The questions are whether they have any chance of restoring the serenity described by David, and if so, what must be done.

On Tuesday, a coalition of Latino and other community leaders demanded that the city implement a system of electing council member by districts. The city now has an at-large system. Four of five council members, none of whom are Latino, live in Anaheim Hills, which coalition members say is evidence of a city political system that favors affluent neighborhoods and corporate interests.

“We have been forgotten by the city,” said 20-year-old Marisol Ramirez, who grew up in the neighborhood at the intersection of North Brookhurst Street and Crescent Avenue. “We’re put into a system that is doomed to fail us.”

Such statements hint that just below the surface of any gains made in Anaheim over the past several years is a legacy of distrust that runs deep.

A Tortured History

Twelve years ago, the police department prepared a dossier — a report known as a “link analysis” typically used to investigate organized crime — that attempted to connect Los Amigos and David to suspected criminals. The report was presented to the City Council in a closed-door briefing.

David and other Latino leaders reacted with outrage and a lawsuit. They argued that the intelligence tactic was a civil rights violation.

The state attorney general’s office also blasted the creation of the dossier as “poor judgment,” because it targeted activists whose only perceived offense was to publicly complain about police harassment, brutality against Latinos and racial profiling.

The existence of the dossier became symbolic of the Anaheim Latino community’s plight. It was clear evidence, said David and other activists, of an orchestrated plan by the city government to stifle dissent.

Tom Daly, who was the mayor of Anaheim at the time and now is a candidate for the 69th Assembly District, which includes Anaheim, said he was “critical” of Roger Baker, the chief at the time.

“I gave instructions to the city manager that it was part of his job to constantly be improving communications with every part of the community. I think generally we accomplished that,” he said.

Before the dossier, Officer Steve Nolan was fired in the early 1990s for reporting police brutality and breaking the department’s “code of silence,” a Santa Ana jury concluded. Before Steve Nolan, there was another confrontation in 1978 between stone-throwing Latinos and police officers that injured 50 and led to 12 arrests.

Those actions by the police department came against the backdrop of an effort by Republicans during Curt Pringle’s 1988 Assembly race to station private guards at polling places in Santa Ana to stop undocumented immigrants from voting.

Many Anaheim Latinos haven’t forgotten that era, nor have they forgiven Pringle, a former mayor and one of the city’s most prominent residents. Ultimately the poll guards led to a civil rights lawsuit that was settled out of court with a $400,000 payment from Pringle’s campaign and the local Republican Party.

A Bond Forged, Then Broken

Latino leaders acknowledge that after the dossier scandal, the police department had made strides to build trust with the Latino community.

The late activist Josie Montoya is credited with requiring police vehicles to have patrol car numbers and having police officers hand out business cards upon request. Current Los Amigos President Jose Moreno said officers started wearing name badges, allowing abused residents to name officers in complaints.

But perhaps the greatest progress came when Welter took the helm, Latino leaders say. He started a culture of dialogue, holding regular meetings with Latino leaders to tackle community issues. It was Welter, Moreno said, who talked about “policing behavior” instead of profiles.

On some levels, the community outreach was working.

Anna Drive resident Yesenia Rojas had been attending town hall meetings at St. Anthony Claret Catholic Church near her neighborhood. According to Joanne Sosa, an activist close to Rojas, the 35-year-old mother was chosen as “block captain” to help organize her community to eradicate graffiti and clean up the streets.

Rojas’ daughter wrote a letter to the police department asking for help, describing her neighborhood was a scary place at night because of a street gang, Sosa said.

But even with such strides, tension over police shootings was beginning to surface. A group of residents has been holding weekly protests since the spring of 2010 over what they say is a police force that shoots Latinos with impunity.

And then Rojas’ other daughter witnessed the Diaz shooting, Sosa said. An officer shot Rojas with a beanbag during the confrontation with police after the shooting, and Rojas’ son was bitten by a police dog in an attack captured on video.

“We’re done. We don’t trust [the police]. We don’t want to see another police car. All they bring is terror,” Sosa said

Rojas has declined requests to be interviewed in recent days. But at last week’s City Council meeting, she criticized the Police Department in an emotional display. She was so angry with Welter she couldn’t even pronounce his name.

“All my daughters are traumatized. They’re really scared of you guys,” Rojas said, referring to police.

Welter did not respond to multiple interview requests over the past week. Last Thursday, Police Sgt. Bob Dunn wrote in a text message to a Voice of OC reporter that the chief had “dozens of interview requests and will work to accommodate them.” Dunn did not respond to further inquiries.

Mayor Tom Tait, meanwhile, has consistently said that the first step to healing a rift with the community is ensuring complete transparency. Upon Tait’s request, the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI agreed last week to conduct an independent review of the Diaz and other police shootings.

Does Anaheim Need a System Change?

Moreno says that the police shooting, the subsequent riot and the community’s gang problems need to be examined under a much wider lens.

The community should do more to hold itself accountable, Moreno said. But he said such problems also go back to the city’s political system, one that he argues shuts out the city’s poor neighborhoods.

“The police are not in a vacuum,” Moreno said. “Neither [the community nor police] are in a vacuum.”

The American Civil Liberties Union agrees and has filed a lawsuit against the city seeking to change the at-large voting system to election by council districts.

The City Council had been scheduled to consider whether the issue should go on the November ballot at last Tuesday’s meeting, but the riot cut the meeting short. Councilwoman Gail Eastman hailed the riot-forced cancellation as a victory “with no shots fired,” in part because it thwarted an opportunity to place a district-based election system on the November ballot. Eastman apologized after press attention on the comments and an angry reaction from Moreno and David.

Tait has called a special meeting on Aug. 8 to consider a ballot initiative on the issue and hear residents’ concerns.

Moreno and others, including Gustavo Arellano of OC Weekly, argue that the council majority’s focus is on the city’s resort district, not poor neighborhoods. Yet ensuring that the city remains a top tourist destination has not produced quality jobs for these working-class people, they say.

“Everybody knows the City Council doesn’t give a damn about them,” said Arellano, who was born and raised in the city.

But he remains hopeful.

“There will be good out of this eventually. You’re going to see a more engaged electorate in Anaheim.”

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek.

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