Santana: Lack of Warning on Civic Center Gun Threat Is Symptom of a Larger Problem

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When a homeless man was shot by police earlier this month after a confrontation on the downtown Santa Ana Civic Center grounds, county officials apparently couldn’t get out a simple email warning workers for hours.

The delay was the result of an IT bug, which took time to fix.

“We are aware and agree on the importance of prompt notification,” wrote Deputy CEO for Government and Community Relations Cymantha Atkinson regarding those alarm bells on the morning of Aug. 1.

“We have been working to send a Civic Center Alert since 10:15 a.m. this morning when we became aware of the incident. IT is on site and fixing the bug.”

That morning, Atkinson also shared a draft memo on the situation to a multi-agency safety committee — one that should have gone out around 9:30 a.m., when officers shot the homeless man on the civic center grounds.

The planned memo would have updated workers on details of the shooting incident and also included this time sensitive, handy warning: “Avoid using the south entrance of CJC as it is closed until further notice.”

That was apparently it for the county top brass. Case closed.

Except, public records show, it was not good enough for one crack public employee, Alice Sinclair — a manager for administration and business operations at the Orange County Auditor Controller who also serves on a civic center safety committee.

Sinclair spoke up.

“If this has been an active shooter situation, a delay of almost two hours could have cost the lives of county employees,” Sinclair emailed back to Atkinson and the rest of her colleagues around noon that day.

“Staff need immediate notification of such incidents to ensure their own safety. In an age when everyone has a smartphone (or two) in their pocket, this is unacceptable. My department is actively working to install bulletproof glass at our public windows, but we can’t protect staff when they are outside our walls.

If you were having technical difficulties sending out a mass email to all County employees, you could have emailed this safety committee so we could pass the word on to our employees. I respectfully request that you do so if and when another such incident occurs.”

This critical information, discussion and debate comes to us as the result of a simple public records request I submitted to the Santa Ana Police Department on Aug. 2, the day after the incident – just to get an independent sense of how executives and others reacted to the situation.

The truth.

Or at least as close as we – as journalists – can get you, the reader, to it.

It’s what you will never get from a government information office, unless – thanks to the California Public Records Act – you ask.

Accessing these kinds of frank exchanges allows us as citizens to truly understand and engage with our government and most importantly, judge for ourselves what is really happening and how agencies and officials are responding.

Or not.

This is the kind of information – raw email exchanges – that the County of Orange is currently arguing in court that the public should never see or it would prevent government officials from doing their job.

Our nonprofit newsroom has been forced to go to court in a costly effort (even triggering a First Amendment attack on me directly) to protect our public rights in Orange County to actually see how our government works – without the help of a government-funded PR effort.

Just the raw facts…

Yet government officials know that it’s expensive to question them, so they stall.

They know that many commercial news outlets won’t spend the money to litigate. They know that small nonprofits often don’t have the money to fund long-term legal fights over public records.

We believe that’s corrosive to democracy.

That’s why since our launch more than six years ago, Voice of OC has made public records access battles key to our mission.

We are not afraid to question. We are not afraid to go to court.

We’re also doing a better job of fundraising to finance those kinds of legal battles by launching a permanent online fundraising campaign through Indiegogo.

You can contribute directly to our litigation fund here.

To read the full public records batch on civic center homelessness in response to the Aug. 1 shooting incident click on these: VOC PRR Results.

In the meantime, here’s another news scoop from the same public records batch.

Amidst the poor throngs stuck living at the Civic Center, it’s clear there’s a growing criminal presence.

One that apparently doesn’t like cops much…

On June 16, Sheriff’s officials emailed area officials throughout the civic center altering them that graffiti, “187 on a cop” had been found at the Civic Center. That same day, officials also warned (even sent out photos) that the letters “KKK” have been spray painted on civic center walls.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department internal memo circulated that day says it all.

“Be mindful of your surroundings while walking in the area.”

Maybe that’s why officers seemed so concerned about their perimeter in the video of the shooting captured by a local attorney and featured by our colleagues over at the OC Weekly.

And what’s your county government doing?

According to public records, apparently organizing the third annual kabuki theatre billed as the Civic Center Awareness and Personal Safety Training session on Aug. 31 from 11 a.m. to noon in the board hearing room of the Hall of Administration.

At the session, you’ll hear top executives, along with Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and SAPD officials, unveil a host of really fancy PowerPoint presentations intended to offer employees the fake hope that you can actually navigate a sea of mentally unstable people, mixed in with petty crooks, every day successfully and safely.

The management memo announcing the session has one of those great, Office Space-type moments from the management folks who park in private garages and haven’t done squat to manage the homeless explosion at the civic center.

“Feeling safe at work is important for all county employees.”

Really?

If that were the case, you wouldn’t have an IT system can’t warn workers with a simple email about a shooting outside their workplace.

Yet remember, this is the same IT system that was cobbled together amidst a frenzy of campaign fundraising by county supervisors. An effort which has obviously left taxpayers and workers with a glitchy, expensive IT system…one that can’t even warn a worker when shots are ringing outside their front window.

If that were the case, you wouldn’t have an explosion of homeless people at the Civic Center that county supervisors allowed to mushroom out of control, year after year without funding or encouraging any kind of response, much less a solution.

During the past year, I had a few moments where I thought county supervisors would actually move to address the unprecedented homelessness explosion at the Civic Center and across the county.

I still recall County Supervisor Todd Spitzer’s moving words at his inaugural back in 2012 on the need for immediate movement on homelessness.

Yet looking back at the lack of results, I’m starting to question whether politicians are really capable of addressing any of these issues at the local level in Orange County.

First, after being called out for the lack of social service workers last year, supervisors forced health care workers who used to blend in and talk with homeless mentally ill people at the Civic Center to sit at a pathetic table, announcing mental health counseling.

In recent months, the lame table was followed up with a motor home.

Then they spent months to hire another expensive county executive to revamp homeless policy and also funded an empty $3.5 million abandoned bus terminal, ostensibly to help the homeless.

I still haven’t heard a word on the homeless shelter site purchased in Anaheim.

And months after closing escrow on the bus terminal in Santa Ana and hiring the new homelessness executive, nothing.

There still seems to be no strategy.

Quite the opposite…

Other than delivering a few porta-potties, the main thing county supervisors have actually installed at the Civic Center are large construction walls, pushing the homeless out into an even more precarious state.

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The city of Santa Ana now has apparently picked up on the trick and also shut down their library for a while and put up construction walls.

All while leaving a nearby bus terminal the size of a football field entirely empty and continuing to hobble together homelessness response at a glacial pace.

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None of this makes me feel safe.

  • LFOldTimer

    Hutchens should automatically approve any county employee for a permit to carry due to the inherent dangers present at the Civic Center. ha. If you work for the County and don’t wear a badge you can put that on your wish list. Remember, when your life’s in danger the police are only 5 (sometimes 10-15) minutes away. In the meantime keep paying your taxes and voting.

    • OCservant_Leader

      Issuing permits to carry for County employees is the first good idea I have heard!

      Frankly, I don’t know if I was more scared to leave the building or stay in the hostile work environment the BOS has created.

      • LFOldTimer

        As a by-product the permit to carry might also help create a very hospitable, gregarious and polite atmosphere in the workplace. That never entered my mind. Thanks for thinking outside the box.

  • OCservant_Leader

    It’s super scary to work there knowing these politicians and their appointees only care about their PR spin and don’t give a damn about administering a government.

    I was not comfortable leaving my life in their hands. Any emergency – they will bungle. I had no confidence after years of watching their selfish incompetence.

    That whole story about an IT bug is a lie. They were consulting their image consultants during an emergency!

  • talkinghead

    Makes me wonder how long the rumor of gang-bangers with guns hanging among the homeless was circulating before the county decided to notify their minions. #CountyWorkerLivesMatter

  • David Zenger

    “That morning, Atkinson also shared a draft memo on the situation”

    Uh-oh. That’s no bueno! “Drafts” are part of the deliberative process according to Spitzer and are NOT suitable for release (according to Spitzer) for fear of stifling creativity. She should have waited ’til it was published. That’s the sole reason for litigating the Voice PRA request, right?