Following an abrupt defeat of his effort to pass a new underage drinking law, a frustrated county Supervisor Todd Spitzer opined to reporters on Tuesday that the Kelly Thomas police beating has forever changed the public’s attitude toward law enforcement.
The Thomas case is “like our Orange County Rodney King,” said Spitzer, who acknowledged that he is seen as pro-law enforcement by many political observers.
“I was a cop in LA. Being a police officer in Los Angeles after Rodney King was never the same,” he added.
“Orange County will never be the same after Kelly Thomas. This is a very conservative,tends to be a pro-police county, but it will never be the same. People are going to, rightfully so, question police powers,” said Spitzer.
While police have historically received a large amount of deference, Spitzer said, the board’s stance shows “a lot more hesitation about additional police powers than probably, people would speculate, would have been in the past.”
Spitzer couldn’t even get a second for his motion to enact a social host ordinance that a majority of his colleagues have publicly criticized as an unwarranted expansion of police powers.
“It comes down to, will the police use these added powers with appropriate discretion? And having this discussion right now in this county is a very difficult discussion, when the whole issue going on – the Kelly Thomas case – is, did police abuse their discretion?”
At its heart, the ordinance would have created a $750 fine for people who allow underage drinking at their homes. A second violation would have been prosecuted as a misdemeanor.
But it fell apart amid concerns about government overreach into the privacy of homes.
“If we think we’re going to stop all these tragedies by getting further and further into people’s homes and lives, you’re not,” Supervisor Shawn Nelson said at last month’s board meeting.
(Click here to read our background on the debate.)
While Spitzer updated the ordinance to state that it gives police no additional powers to enter homes, that apparently wasn’t enough to change the minds of his board colleagues.
All four of the other supervisors opposed the law on Tuesday. None of them seconded Spitzer’s motion to approve, thus failing to bring it to a formal vote.
Supervisor Pat Bates said many of her constituents were concerned about the civil liberties implications.
While there are horrific stories of drunk drivers injuring and killing people, Bates said, the county shouldn’t be legislating for the lowest common denominator.
She encouraged a community-based approach to reducing irresponsible alcohol use.
Spitzer, meanwhile, said the conversation had become distracted from the law’s ability to save lives.
“It’s unfolded into an emotional argument about the cops coming to people’s doors” and crashing them down and violating rights, said Spitzer, who has made preventing drunk driving and other crimes a central issue of his term.
He described the ordinance as a tool to avoid the “horrific aftermath” and “trail of devastation that’s left in the wake” of people who drink and act irresponsibly.
The lack of a vote came after members of the public spoke about the loss of their loved ones to underage drunk drivers.
John Saliture said his 16-year-old daughter Allison was killed by an underage drunk driver who had been drinking at a house party.
“This incident deprived us from our life with Allison as we should have experienced it,” said Saliture. “Had there been social host laws on the books at that time, my daughter’s death may have been prevented”
Some cautioned that there are better ways of approaching the problem.
Another speaker said there was “no clear evidence” that social host ordinances are effective, “and it violates our civil liberties.”
After the meeting, Spitzer vehemently disputed claims that he was using the issue as a publicity opportunity.
“I don’t think there was any grandstanding at all,” said Spitzer. “I could have made my colleagues crawl under the table based on their rejection of that, but I did not take the low road.”
He added that his colleagues recently voted unanimously in support of the Conditions of Children report, which recommended social host ordinances as one of the best practices for reducing drunk driving incidents.
“So I simply took the county’s platform for best practices to fight DUI [driving while intoxicated], and I brought it to the board,” said Spitzer.
The county ordinance would have applied to Orange County’s unincorporated areas, which are home to about 120,000 residents.
County supervisors function as the municipal elected leaders for unincorporated areas, which include North Tustin, Rossmoor, Midway City, Orange Park Acres and Ladera Ranch.
Spitzer said he plans to continue advocating social host ordinances city by city.
Eight of the 34 cities in Orange County have passed such laws.