Santana: Anatomy of a Police State

A still frame of security footage of the 2015 raid on Sky High Holistic.

With more and more municipal budgets across Orange County tilting toward public safety in recent years, there’s seems to be less and less focus from elected officials on transparency and accountability for the largest cost-driver of the municipal budget.

Indeed, when it comes to public safety in Orange County, whether its Republicans or Democrats, par for the course is unchecked spending and secrecy.

Consider the all-Republican Orange County Board of Supervisors, which continues to struggle to establish an independent oversight panel over the sheriff and district attorney but had no problem unanimously spiking spending on deputy salaries and benefits this past election year.

Meanwhile, in Santa Ana, coming off a bruising November campaign where the local police union spent a record sum on city council races, the all-Democrat City Council, is poised to hike police spending this year while also reversing disciplinary measures for controversial officers.

All these elected officials and their agencies spend a significant portion of their budgets on public safety but little time engaging, much less questioning, them.

And even when they seem to, it mostly turns out to be expensive smoke and mirrors – a toxic mix for our pocketbooks, civil liberties and ultimately, for public safety.

That’s what went through my mind this past week when the former chief investigator for the state Fair Political Practices Commission, Gary Schons, abruptly backed out of working with Orange County supervisors to head up the controversial Office of Independent Review at the Sheriff’s Department.

It was nothing short of stunning when county supervisors announced the Schons hire last month – at their next public meeting a week after I publicly criticized them in my Jan. 16 column for leaving key county accountability and oversight positions empty.

Agencies like OIR, performance audit and ethics commission – have been left rudderless…in some cases (like OIR) for nearly a year.

Thus, I was impressed when I saw county supervisors announce such a respected name for that slot, especially so close after I called them out.

Yet before I could even compliment them, Schons was gone.

Now, nobody – not even Schons – is talking.

Makes me think county supervisors jumped the gun in making the announcement.

They need people to think there is oversight.

When you think about it, it is one heck of a vacancy to leave open in a department supervisors argue they see a need for (OIR), right smack in the midst of an unprecedented federal probe over the use of jailhouse snitches that is affecting criminal cases across Orange County and could even imperil the political futures of District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens.

You’d think that supervisors would want an independent assessment of what’s happening inside our criminal justice system while they are making key decisions about it – especially with a federal probe ramping up.

Recently, the Orange County Register reported that county supervisors might have even inadvertently been destroying relevant records in the jail scandal by not understanding that some consent items they were asked to approve by the Sheriff’s Department included records that should not have been slated for destruction.

Indeed, it’s interesting that during this entire jail scandal, county supervisors have seemingly depended entirely on the judgment of Rackauckas and Hutchens, who are themselves right in the midst of it all.

Remember the massively embarrassing jail escape a year ago?

Supervisors have never revisited any of that either, at least not publicly.

One jail commander quietly retired but supervisors have never delved back into what happened there, whether there are institutional problems – like faulty roofs – or just bad managers or both.

A fascinating managers’ rating produced by the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs (which Hutchens bitterly criticized), is the only public document that sheds some light on jail operations by noting the widespread dislike for the former jail commander who quietly retired.

So much for accountability…

All this makes one wonder whether county supervisors should just forget about OIR altogether and lets the feds handle the jails.

They can easily hand off the performance audit function to county Auditor Controller Eric Woolery, who seems to want to conduct those kinds of audits.

And while they’re at it, county supervisors also could consider putting together a commission to select the ethics commission.

They don’t seem up to any of these jobs.

Over in the City of Santa Ana, Democratic council members are themselves grappling with the actions of a little-known city personnel board that reversed the firing of one of the officers involved in a controversial marijuana dispensary raid.

For context, consider that these actions come on the heels of a tough election, where the city’s police union spent a historic sum influencing the city council election and ultimately was able to tilt the majority to their side.

Now, I have no idea of the particulars of this case, in terms of whether the officers’ actions were appropriate or not because I don’t have access to any information, other than a security video that raises serious questions about officers’ actions.

That’s because all the aspects of the investigation, as well as the deliberations of the city council’s obscure personnel review board, are secret.

Nonetheless, the panel’s findings have fueled the officers’ union president from mounting a strong public defense on behalf of his officers.

“The citizen Personnel Board in fact over turned Chief (Carlos) Rojas’s decision. The evidence proved the discipline [and] investigation at the direction of Chief Rojas was mishandled,” union President Gerry Serrano wrote in an emailed statement to our reporter, Nick Gerda.

Yet no official will talk publicly about the case?

This Tuesday, Santa Ana city council members will take public comment before they convene into closed session to consider a potential appeal of the personnel board’s actions, which came on a split 5-2 vote.

Yet how is anybody supposed to really offer an informed public comment when there is no public information – per the California Peace Officer Bill of Rights – about the investigation or the deliberations of a citizen oversight panel?

How are council members supposed to adequately consider the issue themselves when no one else in the community has any ability to offer them conflicting information about what they are provided with through official channels?

These are the same folks who very soon will be coming for the city budget.

One of our regular commenters, LFOldTimer, bluntly – and I believe accurately – identified the trend in one of our last stories.

“Whether you want to admit it or not, this is the anatomy of a police state.”

  • Paging Chris Schmidtt. Clean-up on aisle 7!

  • Ltpar

    Yep, you detailed a number of valid problems in Orange County and there should be no tolerance for misconduct by the Law Enforcement Community. That said, I can assure you that you are far off base on your comparison with the present with a Police State. You will know when that time arrives, if it ever does. The med1a will be shut down cold and if your criticize the government, you will end up in a FEMA Re-education Camp. Let us hope that with the new Administration in Washington, we can avoid that fate which was getting closer to reality than anyone knew. If the President holds true to his promise to return the Rule of Law according to the Constitution, perhaps some of the mess can be cleaned up. In conclusion, the buck stops with the voters. As long as they continue to elect biased and self serving politicans, we will continue to get the kind of government you now write about.

  • LFOldTimer

    Thanks for the plug, Norberto. But anyone with firing synapses and a set of eyeballs should be able to see that there is a woeful lack of accountability in OC law enforcement. The jail escape, the illegal informant scandal, the marijuana store raid are just 3 examples. What about the unexplained beatings caught on video that get swept under the carpet? The fatal shootings that end in million dollar settlements then the evidence gets buried from public review with no explanation for the huge payouts by the taxpayers? We are good enough to pay the million dollar settlements but not good enough to understand the logic behind the payouts? That’s a democracy?

    Someone in the media should do an investigative report that list the city, county, state and Federal elected officials who get endorsed and collect donations from public safety unions and other LE associations. Then look at their voting records on public safety matters. It’s no secret that Do received $86,000 from the Sheriff’s union. Has he or any of the supervisors publicly criticized Hutchens or the Sheriff’s department for the latest embarrassing scandals? Did any of them question another fat pay raise for OCSD when the average cop is already compensated in the top 5% of the working population?

    There is basically zero oversight other than from Judge Goethals and Scott Sanders.

    I disagree with you about Schons. They told us Connolly had flawless credentials too. How did that work out? A single attorney should not have total control over the OIR. That’s the reason the OIR failed for 8 years under Connolly. A waste of tax dollars. There should be a board or a committee that consists of regular citizens who examine these police scandals. We have one for the Grand Jury which has proven to be the only real method of oversight we have in OC. Why not a civilian police oversight committee? Many other California cities and counties have one. If any county needs one it’s Orange County with the OCSD national scandals that taint our reputation. Do the supervisors want real oversight? That’s the question everyone should be asking. Or do they want another toothless lapdog that turns a blind eye to the big scandals and huge legal payouts that have rocked OC?

    There is a crisis in OC. The politicians have their heads buried in the sand. They protect the ones who violate the public trust. Look what’s happening in Santa Ana. That’s a legitimate government?

    • OCservant_Leader

      Kudos to Old-Timer you deserved the plug.

      To add on:

      Why not get the list (oh God – this is an act of war in the OC)

      A Simple LIST of CEO-RISK payouts across the Board? All lawsuits?

      It’s our money — why can’t we see this list of wrongdoing from bad actors in the County?

      • LFOldTimer

        They intentionally hide it from us, OCservant.

        They know if we saw it we’d be outraged and demand reform.

        Reform is the last thing they want.

        • OCservant_Leader

          Oh yea. Great example of the poor oversight in OC. A lie was repeated, and the County doubled down to protect bad actors.

          Cost $10 Million- for management collusion but no fix for the taxpayers.

          • LFOldTimer

            Everybody in the system escaped the SSA scandal without a scratch. The 2 social workers, Michael Riley (the Director), the county supervisors who “doubled down to protect the bad actors”. Today 3 of them are State Senators! ha.

            In the end only the taxpayers get screwed.

            This is the sort of stuff that warrants follow-up investigative reports by the mainstream media.

          • OCservant_Leader

            I agree. Why no follow-up? 10 Million payout for doubling down on lies and everyone got promoted? If this isn’t the making of a great expose – I don’t know what is.

            I know the newspaper print media was decimated but now we have more avenues for news. The opportunities for great journalism – right here in OC – in just the few stories mentioned here could make a great career.

            Just reporting the lies in the ASRs (every two weeks) would keep a team of ten – busy. Hint – line up ASRs across funding sources and identify the “fake” news reported. The stats don’t add up. The budgets are funny numbers. No one “collates” this stuff. Isn’t there a civics class looking for bad government in action -out there – somewhere? Sorry I’m going off topic.

          • verifiedsane

            Just the tip of the corruption iceberg!

          • OCservant_Leader
          • LFOldTimer

            Yeah, I did.

            It’s absolutely disgusting that government workers could commit such heinous and egregious acts that harmed a mother and her children to the tune of $10M and not suffer any job-related consequences. Quite the contrary, the one SSA social worker was promoted.

            And now the daughter is probably going to hit the legal lotto. To my knowledge the Supervisors have never publicly addressed this scandal. Buried it like all the others.

            Another perfect example of the systemic corruption in county government.

          • OCservant_Leader

            The COUNTY appealed on the basis County Workers don’t know lying in Court is wrong?

            This case demonstrates that at the County- to lie and falsify documents IS in the culture! It wasn’t just my experience!

            How many kids did SSA take away from thier parents?

            This is outrageous! VofOC should follow up!

          • LFOldTimer

            I agree. This story should have grown legs and received much more media attention than it did. It was so outrageous.

            Imagine sending that county attorney up north with instructions to tell appellate court justices that Orange County social workers had no idea lying under oath was wrong. lol. How could any licensed attorney agree to communicate such a bogus story-line?

            How embarrassing.

      • David Zenger

        That list can be obtained via PRA request. Ask for all non-workers comp settlements in the past X # of years. They’ll stall but there is no legal excuse for not handing it over.

        • LFOldTimer

          If it was that easy I wonder why the media hasn’t provided a year by year analysis of the amount spent on local county lawsuit settlements and judgments? The public should be informed of the running totals year by year. Is there any doubt it would be of significant public interest and concern?

          If taxpayers aren’t allowed to see the actual evidence that led to the settlement amount decisions we should at least be provided with the running totals without every individual taxpayer submitting a PRA request to find out.

          Normally when I pay for goods and services I get an invoice showing the amount due and an itemized justification for the charge.

          But then government rarely justifies anything.

          • OCservant_Leader

            Right – not so simple. They are claiming privilege on the info.

            A lawsuit would have to be filed to make them comply. Is Vof OC up to it? The OC will have to pay the legal fees in the end.

            Organized Crime flourishes in secrecy. There is no “sunshine” in government if they are allowed to destroy the very records necessary for transparency.

            They shut out the public, protect bad actors, and quietly settle the cases with large checks.

            This pattern needs to be broken and the bad actors need to be fired rather than protected and promoted.

            We are seeing this in LE across the Country. It’s too bad because really good, dedicated public servants are being colored with the same brush as the corrupted politicians.

          • LFOldTimer

            ‘Privilege’ is a legal maneuver to conceal. They know if the evidence was released it would result in public outrage and force reform. That’s the last thing they want. They they force a vigorous fight to get it. They demand we pay for their wrongdoings but refuse to reveal the details of the wrongdoings. Absurd.

            Overall VOC has done a very good job, especially considering their limited financial resources and personnel. Look at the ringer they put Norberto through for simply trying to access county emails.

          • OCservant_Leader

            Yea- Norberto treated Spitzer with respect and gave him way too much leash on that “gun-toting supe” story and Spitzer threw him under the bus so fast and went on the attack with his County Billions at his disposal.

            Asking for public emails (was) is not an act of war.

          • David Zenger

            The payout information isn’t “privileged” in ANY legal sense, although the County has taken to handing embarrassing documents to County Counsel and then claiming client-attorney privilege. They’re doing it to the Auditor-Controller on Dana Point.

            Public agencies are now using the “if you don’t like it, sue us” garbage.

          • OCservant_Leader

            Bingo. Of course they have no right to claim privilege – they do it because it works. Who else has an entire floor of attorneys and 100’s on retainer contracts, with unlimited funds to keep the public out.

            This is the hallmark of organized crime.

          • David Zenger

            It IS that easy. The media is not interested in the big picture. They like to deal with issues one at a time.

            If someone did look at the big picture they would soon see that the County is like a lumbering dinosaur in a china shop, a veritable risk management nightmare. But when they had a chance to do something about it, Mauk, Campbell and Nelson strangled the idea of enterprise risk management (ERM) in its cradle.

            So CEO Risk just kept doing what it always did – dealing (very slowly) with Workers Comp cases and writing checks to victims of County misfeasance and casual indifference.

          • OCservant_Leader

            Right again Zenger.

            At my Agency the Executive Team refused to hear or see any CEO-RISK cases. And let me tell you- you would lose sleep at night if you knew what was going in the bowels of the bureaucracy. They put their fingers in their ears and repeated “I can’t hear you”.

            I assumed they would what to know about bad actors so they could – you know – act as Managers and deal with problems.

            What I found out is – all responsibility under their purview is…unfortunately not related or connected to their performance reviews, raises and not related to their pension ( the real prize).

            Plus, with the appointee system, they had no control over their workforce.

            Therefore, it was safer to keep their head in the sand, be known as a do-nothing and quietly retire on time and allow the cases to explode after their tenure.

          • LFOldTimer

            “It IS that easy. The media is not interested in the big picture. They like to deal with issues one at a time.”

            The media used to have investigative journalists who were interested in the ‘big picture’. Not anymore. Piecemeal reporting only benefits the cult and takes advantage of the public’s short memory.

            Some brave soul with a pen has to tie it all together.

    • Soy Yo

      Old timer and Norberto, you both mention something similar to exactly what took place in the marijuana dispensary case. Civilian oversight and review? What would you call the personnel board? Norberto pointed out for several paragraphs in his article that the only piece of information he based his opinion on is the piece of surveillance video that the attorney delivered to media outlets claiming that officers consumed marijuana while serving a warrant.

      Consider a few things, the former city council who selected the personnel board that reviewed the case did not include the members who have since voted to deny Chief Rojas’ request to challenge the decision in superior court. They included selections of F Troop Reyna and Amezcua. After reviewing all aspects of the investigation and termination of Officer Sontag this board determined the termination was overkill.

      You also pointed out that the supervisor on scene received a minimal slap on the wrist. What about the other officers who were present? The video showed several officers present, why were the three terminated while the others were allowed to keep their jobs?

      The LA Police Civilian Commision has shown extremely poor judgement and I don’t believe the city of Santa Ana would benefit from having something similar. Their determination for the knife-wielding lady charging officers was that the officers should have “redeployed.” In laymen terms, the cops should have run away from the knife-wielding crazy person and allowed her to run freely, posing a clear danger to society. Is that what you want of your police; officers who run away from dangerous situations so as to save the city’s money during civil lawsuits?? I sure in the heck don’t. The police should be concerned with the safety of the public and of their fellow officers.

      With regard to the jail escape, I agree that there should have been some thorough investigation as to what caused the escape. That entire situation was a head scratcher to say the least. The policies and procedures in the jail should have been reviewed and adjusted as necessary to ensure it never happens again. I would hope something of that manner occurred and the results were simply never made public.

      • LFOldTimer

        What would I call the Santa Ana Personnel Board? For starters I’d call them blind. That’s no oversight board. It’s a joke.

        The warrant for the marijuana dispensary signed by a judge didn’t instruct those cops to heist private property for personal consumption – nor did it instruct them to destroy thousands of dollars worth of private electronic equipment – nor did it instruct them to threaten or demean handicapped or disabled individuals on said property.

        All one needs is the surveillance video to observe the police misconduct. Cut ‘n dried. The video tells all. What exactly do you think is missing?

        Surveillance videos convict criminals in courts of law all the time.

        Why weren’t the other cops terminated? Probably because they were not observed on video committing offenses that rose to the level of job termination.

        There are civilian police oversight boards throughout California cities and counties that have proven to reduce police misconduct. And there are civilian police oversight boards in other states that boast great success in keeping the police in line.

        Whatever happened to those Santa Ana cops who used excessive force on Edgar Vargas who was beaten relentlessly on video in 2014 while on the ground in a prone position putting up no resistance?

        Are you employed by the City of SA by chance, Soy?

  • OCservant_Leader

    This is scary. Law Enforement is in bed with the crooked politicians…now WHO is policing WHO?

    Great Article Norberto — if this doesn’t start to wake up the electorate – I don’t know what will.

    POBOR – like all the tools at the hand of the Bureaucracy – are used to PROTECT themselves from wrongdoing. Period.

    City of Santa Ana – don’t hide behind the secrecy of POBOR! Or is the Blue-Democratc SA just as corrupt as the RED GOP OC?

    Irregardless of the regulatory quagmire of this ridiculous process – there needs to be an emergency clause added “Except in the Case where the CRIME is recorded on VIDEO”!

    Call it the common sense clause. A Peace Officer takes an oath to uphold ALL laws. This is literally – the LAW.

    We all SAW the SAPD commit the crimes on Video (I believe viewed over 25 Million times). I don’t even understand who approved a raid on a medical marijuana dispensary- in the first place?

    Is SA as corrupt as the City of Fullerton who aquitted the Police caught (on video) beating kelly Thomas to death?

    What about OC County Council and BOS destroying records subpeaned during a Felony Superior Court Case?. They can’t use the “incompetent” escape clause like GED’s running the County – can they? They are attorneys. They know the law. They are licensed by the CA Bar -Right?

    Now let’s see the legal mechanism that responds to lawbreakers in action.

    judge Goathals- we are waiting.

  • Paul Lucas

    POBOR needs to be repealed like thee author of POBOR wanted.

    • LFOldTimer

      POBOR does not prohibit a local politician from voicing his or her disgust with local law enforcement’s behavior. But political endorsements or campaign donations could certainly interfere with open discussion.

      Stop pointing fingers at Sacramento and let’s start holding local politicians accountable for their silence and complicity.

  • verifiedsane

    spot on reporting….the secrecy and corruption throughout OC government is beyond astounding…“Whether you want to admit it or not, this is the anatomy of a police state.” Is that what the citizens of Orange County are going to allow….these ruling class crimes are the building blocks that revolutions are built upon..at some point…enough citizens will become victims of the system…at some point, the people will just come to the ominous conclusion that enough is finally enough…

  • David Zenger

    “Yet how is anybody supposed to really offer an informed public comment when there is no public information – per the California Peace Officer Bill of Rights – about the investigation or the deliberations of a citizen oversight panel?”

    Winner of the Rhetorical Question of the Year Award.

    The Santa Ana cop union boss can mouth off because he knows the whole thing is deliberately shrouded in enough mystery to make conclusive statements impossible from people who are afraid of conclusive statements. Still, those of us with any modicum of common sense can watch that video (just like the Kelly Thomas video) and reach a sound conclusion.

    As to why the Supervisors and their stafflings overlooked/ignored/conspired in the destruction of documents we will never know. But consider that the BoS has using their own lawyer (County Counsel) to run interference for the Sheriff in the snitch scandal mess and you get the message.