Santa Ana Considers New Police Oversight After $8.5 Million in Shooting Payouts

Santa Ana officers just after shooting an unarmed homeless man, Richard Gene Swihart, in the city's Civic Center last August. Swihard later died from his injuries. Photo used with permission from Scott C. Thomas Esq.

Santa Ana is joining the list of California cities considering additional civilian oversight of police shootings and other uses of force.

During heated discussions with their colleagues in recent weeks, most of the City Council supported a discussion of new oversight, including the possible creation of a civilian review panel that would examine police use-of-force incidents, policies, and training.

“I’m a big believer in checks and balances” said Councilwoman Michele Martinez, who brought the issue before the council at meetings in March and this month.

“This city has functioned and has run without accountability. We need accountability.”

The city spent $8.5 million in taxpayer funds last year to settle three cases, including  $6.8 million to settle two lawsuits alleging Santa Ana officers improperly shot and killed two men.

The settlements were in cases filed by family members of Jason Hallstrom and Ernesto Canepa, who were shot and killed in 2013 and 2015, respectively. A third settlement of $1.7 million was approved last year over the police shooting of an unarmed homeless man, Kevin Arellano.

“I think that we always have got to find a way to make the system work better,” said Councilman Sal Tinajero. “The $6 million is Exhibit A. The dead body is Exhibit B.”

“In my profession, yeah I want to get rid of bad teachers because then it elevates our profession. I think the same should go for our police department.”

Altogether, Santa Ana taxpayers have covered more than $17 million in legal costs over the past decade for cases alleging police used excessive force, wrongfully killed people, or violated civil rights, according to city data.

But others on the council argue there’s already enough oversight of officers’ actions, such as the District Attorney’s Office, and that civilian review could cause rushes to judgment against officers.

“Sometimes they can become just another layer of review. And I think we already have quite a few for our officers,” said Mayor Miguel Pulido.

“I think it’s not broken. Don’t fix it, leave it alone. They have plenty, plenty of review.”

Pulido also pointed out the DA’s office has found no reason to prosecute any of Santa Ana’s officers for illegal use of force in the last few years.

Council members have directed city staff to prepare options for additional police force review. A study session on the issue is scheduled for their May 2 meeting, where members of the public will be able to comment.

In California, the structure of civilian oversight over city police is up to each city council. Many cities, like Santa Ana, do not have a citizen panel to review police misconduct complaints or use-of-force incidents, except to decide appeals from officers who want their disciplinary punishment reduced.

At the other end of the spectrum is Oakland, where voters in November approved one of the nation’s most powerful civilian oversight bodies.

Oakland’s new commission will oversee investigators and an executive director who look into allegations of police misconduct. The commission will be able to issue subpoenas for documents and testimony, recommend discipline against officers, fire the police chief for cause, and create a list of police chief candidates the mayor must choose from.

The investigators are guaranteed access to a wide range of police files and records, other than personnel files. Personnel documents, which are highly protected under state law, will be accessible only to the commission’s executive director, who will be bound by confidentiality rules.

Santa Ana’s discussion comes as Orange County’s largest city, Anaheim, debates whether to create an investigative police commission, keep its limited review board the way it is, or abolish it. And on Tuesday, Los Angeles’ police commission approved a new policy requiring officers to de-escalate situations, when it’s “safe and reasonable,” before using deadly force. Officers will be evaluated about their de-escalation efforts as part of possible discipline.

In Santa Ana, it would take support from four of the seven council members to pass additional police oversight.

Four council members have shown a strong interest in exploring it: Martinez, Tinajero, Vicente Sarmiento, and David Benavides.

Two council members have argued that additional civilian oversight isn’t needed: Pulido and Juan Villegas.

The remaining council member, Jose Solorio, has been less clear, saying he sees value in both the supporting and opposing arguments.

“At the end of the day, in terms of accountability and holding our police officers and all departments accountable, you know the buck stops with us on the City Council. So I don’t also just want to, you know, give away this very important responsibility to somebody else, especially if we ourselves haven’t looked at it,” Solorio said at the March 7 meeting.

At that meeting, Solorio voted against continued discussion at the City Council, saying it should instead be discussed by the council’s public safety committee.  But at a later meeting, he supported the full council’s continued discussion of the issue.

If a majority of the council wants an oversight body to be in place within the next year, and there are only four votes for it, they might have to set aside the funding for it in June during their annual budget approval. The city’s budget, which covers the fiscal year starting July 1, can be passed with four votes, but mid-year adjustments require five.

The Santa Ana police officers’ union hasn’t publicly weighed in on the issue.

The union endorsed Pulido, Villegas, and Solorio in their elections last year, spending more than $400,000 to support them and a fourth candidate who wasn’t successful. The four other council members either weren’t up for election last year or did not receive police union campaign spending or endorsements.

In arguing against new civilian police oversight, Villegas, who works as a sheriff’s special officer, said it could lead to rushes to judgment against officers.

“I don’t want people to get hurt, because police work can be a little messy,” said Villegas.

“People make mistakes. We all make mistakes,” Villegas added. “I don’t like to Monday night quarterback anyone.”

Benavides took offense at that sentiment.

“When you’re talking about millions being paid out because of wrongful actions, and lives being lost, it’s a lot more than ‘a little messy.’ ” he said.

“We want to make sure to have levels of accountability, again, to ensure that…the name and the work of the fine law enforcement officers within the Santa Ana police are protected and not tainted by some of those that are not performing their duties as they should.”

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

  • verifiedsane

    NEW: Santa Ana Police Chief Carlos Rojas has announced his resignation – http://www.ocregister.com/2017/04/20/amid-controversy-over-rise-in-shootings-santa-ana-police-chief-resigns-says-he-has-new-job/ Now the union can get back to the criminal business of protecting criminal cops, electing their stooges, and stealing all the tax payer funds from the city coffers….dissolve the police union, and make strides in solving many of Santa Ana’s crime problems….

  • Manuel Delgadillo

    Here we have a push by Councilwoman Michelle Martinez in forming a new police oversight due to some recent officer involved shooting payouts by the City of Santa Ana. This is coming from a council woman that was quoted in the Liberal OC as a “self-admitted former drug dealer.” I question her sincerity in actual police support.

    Then there is Councilman Sal Tinejero saying, “In my profession, yeah I want to get rid of bad teachers because it elevates our profession. I think the same should go for our police department.” I think the same could be said about the teaching profession with high profile cases involving students.

    Who are these two councilmen kidding? The Orange County District Attorney is unbiased and oversees and investigates these officer involved shooting. Do these two know or realize that they make the decisions to make these pay outs because it is more costly to litigate these cases than settle, of course at the advice of counsel.

    Then there is Councilman Benavides chiming on the millions. He forgets those decisions are made in seconds involving these shootings. Every officer perceives danger differently and he will not know what that means until he walks in those police officer work boots. He is not out at night driving thru the alleys and dealing with the dangers. But Councilman Benavides did put on a great event “Love Santa Ana” where volunteers re-painted the drainage canal and neighborhood in the Townsend area. This is what all Councilmen should be doing improving their neighborhood.

  • John Claxton

    Yeah, police oversight worked out real well for the thugs that busted up that pot shop! Most disgusting action I have ever witnessed by law enforcement. The first one got his job back already. The rest will follow. Our DA is worthless when it comes to prosecuting government corruption! His mistress now his wife has been involved in one scandal after another, and she still keeps her upper management salary from the PAPG $110k at last visit for doing clerical work (processing educational reimbursement forms). Anyway, back to the topic at hand, Pulido, a mayor for life thug/crook says it ain’t broke don’t fix it. I’m still laughing!

    • LFOldTimer

      You only saw it because it was on video.

      Have you ever considered what acts were committed by these or other thugs with badges in the OC when no video existed or the video was turned off?

      Had there been no video at the weed dispensary you wouldn’t have even heard about what took place. The media would claim the complainants were common criminals who couldn’t be trusted. lol.

      I’m concerned most about what we HAVEN’T seen in a society where the authoritays are ‘said’ to be held to the highest of standards (which we all know is a complete farce).

      • John Claxton

        True that! Honor among cops ain’t what it used to be. There will always be bad apples but it’s gotten worse since the peace officer bill of rights makes it almost impossible to bring any of them to justice – or to even identify chronic offenders.

        • LFOldTimer

          Agreed.

          I used to have tremendous respect for cops back in the day when they made less than HALF of what they make today.

          They were real cops who could resolve situations (w/ their mouths) without pulling out their hogs and busting a cap on some guy who looked sideways at them.

          Most could handle themselves physically and didn’t have 40 pound of flab hanging over their belts.

          And 15 SWAT cops didn’t have to respond to every idiot who barricaded himself in a home. Beat cops would bust down the door and take care of business themselves generally without anyone getting hurt.

          They have turned modern day cops into pansies. And it’s embarrassing to those who recall how real cops used to operate.

  • WW

    Imagine getting MILLIONS is a lawsuit! .. Or loosing millions in a judgement… Isn’t VIDEO most often critical? . . . Whenever observing START FILMING! . . . Inform parties you are recording and MAINTAIN YOUR RGHT TO KEEP RECORDING! . . .If they shut off one’s recorder…SUE! . . . To the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary. . . .WE MUST ESTABLISH THIS AS A BASIC RIGHT TO FREELY DOCUMENT EVENTS!
    Peace & Blessings

    • LFOldTimer

      Like they tell the common citizen: “If you’re not doing anything wrong – what do you have to fear?”

      But like the old axiom goes “Don’t do as I do. Do as I say.”

      It’s part and parcel of a police state.

  • WW

    POWER TO THE PEOPLE!
    One way or another.. through citizen’s commission or RIOTS!
    People WANT FREEDOM, especially from INJUSTICE!
    Peace & Blessings

    • #Respect

      Yes, accountability, but RIOTS then you say “peace and blessings”? Sounds like the modern day fascism that we are seeing.

  • verifiedsane

    “But others on the council argue there’s already enough oversight of
    officers’ actions, such as the District Attorney’s Office, and that
    civilian review could cause rushes to judgment against officers.” <—-Is this statement a bad joke or what? The corrupt and bumbling DA's office isn't going to do anything when it's comes to police misconduct…..from the bungled Kelly Thomas case, to the snitch scandal, to the pot shop raid officer's criminal conduct, to ignoring corruption perpetrated by public officials and beyond…..

    We know that at least half the city council and the mayor are in the police union's pocket; so I wouldn't be holding your breath for any real or effective citizen oversight of police misconduct coming anytime in the near future….the police department and council will just past the cost of police criminal misconduct onto the Santa Ana tax payers as usual….that is the sad truth….I wish I would be proved wrong…but I doubt it..

    • LFOldTimer

      Years ago I used to laugh at the public corruption and lack of public integrity in the 3rd world.

      I don’t laugh anymore.

  • OCservant_Leader

    $8.5 M payout for illegal actions of SAPD?

    Mayor Pulido says “if it ain’t broke…why fix it”?

    Combine that with the corrupt DA and Sheriff cheating scandal and this is some scary stuff.

    We will soon be left with two budget items is OC – Lawsuit Payouts & Pension Payments.

  • LFOldTimer

    “The settlements were in cases filed by family members of Jason Hallstrom and Ernesto Canepa, who were shot and killed in 2013 and 2015, respectively.”

    This is the very first time I’ve read about these cases that resulted in a combined $6.8 million settlement. Where the he*l was the media for God’s sake?

    $8.5 million is a tremendous sum of money to pay for police wrongdoing for a city the size of SA for one year. If the killings were wrong – why wasn’t anyone fired or prosecuted? lol. If the cops screwed up why didn’t the bad cops PERSONALLY pay the settlement or why wasn’t it taken out of the police budget? Why were the innocent taxpayers billed? Since the taxpayers were forced to pay it – were the taxpayers allowed to see the EVIDENCE that supported the police wrongdoing(s) which resulted in the $8.5 million settlements for 2016? Why not? So the taxpayers were forced to pay for acts of wrongdoing without fully understanding the specifics of the wrongdoing? How the he*l is that a government of, for and by the people??? lol. That’s what our government leaders call “freedom” and “transparency”? lol.

    What ever happened to the SA cops who got caught on video assaulting Edgar Vargas Arzate in 2014 after he surrendered on the ground? A clear case of illegal assault under the color of authority. You can watch the video on-line. Anybody fired? Anybody prosecuted? Nope. Total and complete pass. If anybody was punished it was AGAIN the innocent taxpayers.

    And then you have cops behaving like the 17th Street gang members on video during the execution of a search warrant on the weed dispensary. Even though the Police Chief Vargas tried to do his job and fire the rascals the SA Personnel Board one of them. ha. The police union and several council members (the bought off ones) ganged up on Vargas and started trash talking him.

    And how do you think your SA police department behaves when there is NO VIDEO EVIDENCE??? ha. How do you think those SA narcotic officers behave when they execute search warrants on private homes that contain lots of dope and money? Use your imagination.

    I hate to break the news to you, Santa Ana residents. You live under a police state that is condoned by your city council. Have you ever heard one of your council members point out the evidence of a police state in your city as I have above? No? Why do you think that is?

    Don’t take the HEAD FAKE about more police oversight. The county did the same thing. They appointed a puppet lapdog and then turned a blind eye as the sheriff’s office trampled all over the US constitution. The lapdog and the sheriff worked to protect one another. And the BoS knew it the entire time. They publicly reprimanded the jerk 3 times for not doing his job – yet kept him on the payroll for 7 or 8 years! LOL!

    Look at how Anaheim hoodwinked their citizens when an impotent police review board at great expense to their citizens. lol.

    Folks, it a rigged system with the cops, the unions and the politicians (3 gangs) that work together in furtherance of their individual interests – NOT YOUR INTERESTS – their interests.

    I risked my life for this country. I took sworn oaths in service to my nation AND TOOK THOSE OATHS SERIOUSLY AND ADHERED TO THOSE OATHS TO THE LETTER! I take personal offense at those who violate their oaths and sell their communities down the river for personal gain.

    YOU SHOULD TOO!

  • Jane Rands

    I applaud the Santa Ana City Council for stepping up to do the right thing. While the lead argument is saving money rather than saving lives, I do hope that the underlying goal is justice.

    “But others on the council argue there’s already enough oversight of officers’ actions, such as the District Attorney’s Office, and that civilian review could cause rushes to judgment against officers.”

    Waiting for the DA to prosecute police misconduct is too little too late. The purpose of Civilian Oversight is to set clear policies and identify problem officers in advance of egregious harm to a suspected criminal. Police acting as judge and jury in the heat of the moment is where a “rush to judgement” is more likely to occur than in a civilian led investigation where police have many protections by law.

    I do hope that the police unions will not deter the majority on the council who support Civilian Oversight. Its time for the unions to recognize that oversight is not intended to penalize police officers for doing a good job, but to help ensure that the work they do is in the interest of the community.

    • LFOldTimer

      20 to 1 there is no real oversight in the works. Only FAKE oversight. We’ve seen this movie played over and over again in the OC. Do we really need to see another replay? We need to trust our own eyes when it comes to observing the behavior of others. Don’t trust their words. We’ve been lied to repeatedly. BELIEVE IN BEHAVIOR!

      At some point all of us need to use our common sense and disregard the fairy tales. Otherwise we are no better than gullible village idiots.

      • Jane Rands

        There are solid resources from NACOLE that can help initiate real oversight and to help keep it on track. Check it out.
        https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/nacole/pages/161/attachments/original/1481727977/NACOLE_short_doc_FINAL.pdf?1481727977

        • LFOldTimer

          The County considered the options in 2007-08 too, Jane. They promised us watertight oversight when BoS brought in Mr. Watchdog Michael Gennaco to lead the charge. Gennaco recommended his buddy Stephen Connolly to be the Director for the OIR. The rest is history.

          There are some cities in California who have oversight boards with teeth – those that have subpoena power and can actively investigate cases. But there MUST be CIVILIANS with decision-making authority – not just some crony lawyer who happens to be bosom buddies with the politicians who appoint him or her.

          That’s why this matter must be monitored VIGILANTLY. Otherwise the Anaheim council will sell their residents a bill of goods with bogus oversight at a premium price.

          Past behavior is ALWAYS the best predictor of future behavior.