Santa Ana Police Union Shakeup Could Mean More Aggressive Politics

Police Caution Tape
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Last month, Santa Ana Police Officers Association Vice President Gerry Serrano took over the union’s top job from John Franks, the final step in an overhaul of the entire executive board that insiders say is a message from officers dissatisfied with the status quo.

Franks didn’t return a phone call seeking comment, but sources close to the department say he had cultivated good relationships with city leaders through his diplomatic, back-channel approach to communication. It wasn’t clear whether Franks resigned voluntarily or was forced out by the membership and new board.

Some officers weren’t happy with Franks’ “lack of machismo,” said a source close to the department. “We’re a union and don’t want anyone pushing us around,” is the approach these officers want the leadership to adopt, the source said.

The timing of the new board’s election is also telling. It came just after many officers requested a vote of no confidence in Police Chief Carlos Rojas – a vote that insiders say Franks was against until the union assembled a legitimate list of grievances. The vote was never cast.

Serrano meanwhile is described as far more direct in making demands on behalf of union members. Instead of private channels with city leaders, Serrano goes as far as printing out his email exchanges with the police chief and distributing them to rank-and-file members, the source said. (Serrano said he doesn’t recall this anecdote, but acknowledged the importance of being transparent with union members.)

The turmoil in the union comes as Santa Ana residents and local activists have leveled harsh criticisms at the department for its generally poor relations with the city’s majority Latino community. Resident anger has been stoked by gang injunctions, most notably in the Townsend Street neighborhood, and high-profile incidents like the 2014 beating of Edgar Vargas.

Rojas — who was appointed in 2014 after serving as interim chief for two years — has responded by participating in community forums and instituting reforms including a new beat system for patrol officers that moves in the direction of community policing; and taking a harder line on police misconduct. Many in the department, especially long-tenured officers, are bristling at this new approach.

Old vs. New

Councilman Sal Tinajero described the discord within the department in remarks at a forum on community oriented policing captured on video and posted to Facebook by the Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color Group.

“It’s not the olden days where you could come in and do what you needed to do….we have to change the culture to fit the community. So if you shoot someone you’re going to be held accountable,” Tinajero said. “Right now there’s an internal struggle of the old way versus the new way.”

Tinajero also said residents should be checking on which council candidates receive the police officers’ endorsement and ask them what they gave in return for the officers’ support, statements he says in the video are “very dangerous” for him to make.

Tinajero has since walked back from these remarks and sent a letter to the police union saying his comments don’t represent his beliefs about Santa Ana officers, Serrano and other sources confirmed. Tinajero did not return a phone call for comment.

Santa Ana Police Officers Association President Gerry Serrano.

Courtesy of Gerry Serrano

Santa Ana Police Officers Association President Gerry Serrano.

In many respects, Serrano, a 20-year veteran of the department, represents the old-school faction of the department. He’s been an undercover narcotics detective, and most recently led the department’s homicide team. These experiences, he says, give him a street-level sense of the dangers facing officers, especially in recent months as gun violence has skyrocketed.

The first quarter of 2016 saw more than 100 shootings, a 280 percent jump over the same period in 2011, Serrano said. Meanwhile, he said, the number of officers has decreased from 400 back then to 306 now.

Serrano doesn’t mince words when criticizing the new policies Rojas has implemented in recent months. He speaks for the many officers who hate the beat system – which requires patrol officers to stay in their beat zones and respond to non-emergency calls only within those areas. The result, he says, are higher wait times on calls for service.

“How do you respond to that family in crisis when they call you for help and it takes hours to get there?” Serrano said.

Rojas insists the department is hiring more officers and has in the past defended the beat system as necessary for officers to better understand the community and establish good relationships with residents. Many activists and members of the City Council have demanded a more community-oriented model of policing, and a beat system is considered a cornerstone of that approach.

And as for personnel matters, Rojas has undoubtedly taken a more aggressive approach to discipline than his predecessor, Paul Walters. But Serrano said the beef from officers isn’t that they’re being disciplined for misconduct, it’s that the higher ups aren’t.

“When someone makes a mistake, my members are more than willing to admit that, and take on the discipline that’s appropriate. What I will say from the outside looking in… is that what everybody wants is some consistency and some fairness. I don’t think that’s been the case,” he said.

Rojas insists that he deals with officers’ discipline “in accordance with the law and in accordance with department policy.”

Girding for a Fight?

Despite Serrano’s blunt assessments, council members say they do not see him as particularly hard to work with, at least not yet. Councilwoman Michele Martinez, known to be disliked by the police union, says she hasn’t seen the “my way or the highway” approach.

“He certainly hasn’t shown those cards to me yet,” Martinez said.

Serrano said he wants to make sure the City Council and members of the public understand what’s at stake this election. And he’s very clear about what kind of city council he wants to see at the dais after November — the goal is to get “public-safety-minded people elected.”

To accomplish this, Serrano focused on increasing the share of officers contributing to the union’s political action committee – which spends money on political campaigns – from somewhere in the 70 percent range to almost 100 percent.

While many might see such an effort as an indication that Serrano is planning to play political hardball with the council, he says he’s not going to be confrontational – but the union will be more “engaged” in the city’s politics.

“A strong PAC gives us options. It allows us to educate our current council. Maybe they’re not aware of the current crime picture, maybe they’re not aware of the needs of our community,” Serrano said. “[The] PAC allows us to voice our concerns and educate people. I’m humbled and excited that our membership is all in.”

However, while the police union is looking to assert itself, so is the community. In Santa Ana and throughout the country, residents who in the past lived in fear of the police are now rising up and demanding that officers be held accountable for unwarranted shootings and other acts of brutality.

“Things are changing drastically for law enforcement, and we’re going to get with the times or not,” Martinez said.

Martinez also acknowledges that the city has evolved a more complex political dynamic. In years past the city’s business was primarily a negotiation between the labor groups and city leaders, but residents and activists have stepped up and demanded a prominent role in the decision-making.

Serrano dismisses such concerns and says Santa Ana has a “silent majority” — including residents and business owners — who back the police officers but don’t make themselves heard at City Hall. Officers have been for the first time actively looking to leave Santa Ana to work in other cities, leading to the department remaining short staffed and overwhelmed, he said.

“It’s a difficult job,” he said. “It’s getting harder for our officers.”

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

  • Manuel Delgadillo

    Santa Ana Police Union Shakeup…… No shake up!

    Let us begin by addressing few inaccuracies because it appears that this is what sells and what readers want to read and address. If there is no drama with words as “overhaul, shakeup, aggressive politics, internal struggle, vote of no confidence, lack of machismo, the old vs. the new” no one would read this story. I find that if Mr. Adam Elmahrek did not spice up his story no one would read it. (Negativity sells) It also appears there is some political motivation behind this story. The SAPOA is simply trying to get a fresh start with a new president, clean slate sort of speak.

    The only thing that happened at our Santa Ana Police Officers Association was a changing of the guard. The membership felt it was not getting the representation it deemed necessary like any other organization would do. There are some parts of this article I will comment on and on others I simply cannot.

    Vote of no confidence (NO)

    Edgar Vargas (No)

    Gang Injunction (No)

    Police Staffing (No)

    I will begin with our new Santa Ana Police Officers Association President Jerry Serrano. He was chosen because he can be trusted, first and foremost. Second, he is a straight shooter. Third, he wants the best for the membership. Fourth, he is adamant about the transparency with his dealings. Fifth, he is easy to work with. I believe the Santa Ana City Council will be glad he is SAPO president. SAPOA membership asked him to take the presidency. This is clear and to the point. Our membership is excited except for those that were ousted.

    Community Policing: The Santa Ana Police Department has always been at the fore front of Community Policing with our former Police Chief and has continued with our current Chief Carlos Rojas.

    Councilman Sal Tinejero has since apologized because he was misquoted.

    SAPOA Pac money is down because we have lost members over the years and council members seek our support come election time. This is nothing new but good old fashion politics.

    OLD vs. New. This is non-existent. The whole SAPOA is in this together.

    The shootings in our city: Santa Ana is home to a rough crowd along with early prison released.

    Police Officer’s Accountability: More so today than ever before.

    The End

  • mutheta

    @Steve Downing – You need to stop butting in all over the universe boasting of your experience. You retired almost 40 years ago and are totally out of touch with police work and the internal politics today. Your opinion is certainly welcome, but you before you express your opinion, don’t mislead the readers by making them believe you just took off the badge last week.

    You “see a very dangerous game…”, not because of anything to do with your experience, but your own personal political beliefs.

    • Steve Downing

      Wrong. It is my experience and history that has seen police unions morph from what they were to what they are today- and the transition is ugly. Politics has nothing to do with it. Professional policing has suffered under the political power of police unions. The Santa Ana example is one of many.
      I cite my background to offer the credibility of experience. It does not matter how long ago that was. I am also current with today’s police practices.

      • mutheta

        @Steve Downing – You seem to miss the point. Citing your experience without any disclaimer when you post on every site under the sun about your disdain for police unions is misleading. You retired from LAPD when Jimmy Carter was president and began work in the JFK era. (Actually, Eisenhower may have been president when you began employment. Please clarify).

        You may be current with today’s police practices like many civilians, but to make statements based on experience four decades ago gives readers a false sense of your background. Your “experience” goes back to a time when the LAPD and LAFD were one union – hardly worthy of citing “experience” in attempting to substantiate today’s police union climate.

        • Steve Downing

          Wrong again. I didn’t miss your point and you exaggerate my ignorance of present day conditions. I retired in 1980 but that does not mean that I cannot see the good and the bad of what has occurred in our profession – especially with the public union movement. I clearly stated that I was retired. I am also part of an on-going police family. I do not live in a bubble.

          Please argue the content of my message. Attacking the history of my 20 years of law enforcement experience degrades your argument and insults the reader who you feel I mislead.

          Also, why is it you use “mutheta” rather than your true name? Does that fact alone not make your comments a bit more suspect than me not establishing my retirement date? Name yourself and your background, Sir and perhaps your messages will be better understood by everyone.

          • mutheta

            This will be my last reply, Steve. No one is arguing the content of your messages that you have left all over the internet. And no one is arguing that you “cannot see the good and the bad of what has occurred in our profession”. What the argument is about is the fact you allude to the fact that your “experience” is recent and that is misleading. There is a big difference in experience from a few years ago and experience from a time before disco was in.

          • Steve Downing

            This too will be my last reply. Please point out where I stated that my retirement was recent. That was never said or inferred. That is your illusion, Murhea, or whoever you are.

  • Steve Downing

    As an experienced – and retired – LAPD deputy chief of police I see a very dangerous game is being played here. The Union has taken the position that it knows what kind of service the community wants in spite of what the community says it wants. The Union says that it will elect the people it wants on the City Council and other public positions by using the strength of its membership’s treasury. The Union does not view its membership as public servants, but rather as the Shot Callers and King Makers who aim to get what the cops want rather than what the People want. And what the cops seem to want is to remain in the dark ages, keep the status quo and police the community as they see fit – under the leadership of a confrontational president instilled with the cultural inclinations of a drug warrior, rather than a peace officer.

    The ONLY response for the Santa Ana community to this kind of tyrannical arrogance is to take one position at the ballot box and one position ONLY – – vote NO against any politician who is supported by the Police Union. Vote NO for any tax measure that is supported by the Police Union. Vote YES for any initiative that is OPPOSED by the Police Union.
    In short, neuter the Police Union and limit their out-of-control demands to working conditions, salary and benefits at a negotiation table in which one side does not suffer from the influence of the Police Union treasury.

    Too often – in too many cities – the Police Union sits on both sides of the table.

    • tinroof

      I guess the question being asked by the police union is what does the Community really want. Do the activists who lobby Hall really represent what a majority of the Santa Ana voters want? I suspect the voters want a safer place to live and are less concerned with reining in the police.

      • Steve Downing

        I do not advocate reining in the police, only the Police Union.