As local residents question a school police officer’s handling of a 14-year-old boy, Santa Ana’s school police chief called Friday for more witnesses to come forward, while the boy’s mother labeled the officer’s force as excessive.
“We’re still in the process of [waiting] for additional witnesses to come forward,” said Hector Rodriguez, police chief for the Santa Ana Unified School District.
“We’re asking the public, if they have additional information, or if somebody else witnessed this incident, then we obviously welcome their perspective.”
The boy’s arrest Tuesday at Adams Park in Santa Ana has sparked intense debate in the city of 331,000.
In a video posted online, the officer is seen holding the boy in a headlock as the boy screams for help and says he’s not resisting.
(Click here to watch the video.)
The boy’s mother, meanwhile, said the officer was too aggressive with her son.
“I believe that if a youth does something, they need to pay the consequences, but don’t abuse a child,” Griselda Lopez told the Orange County Register. “He’s not a grown man to defend himself.”
A school board member has also weighed in, saying his colleagues should look into having a broader discussion about the police force’s relationship with the community.
Trustee John Palacio told Voice of OC Thursday that he supports the idea of a community forum to hear concerns about the district’s Police Department while also calling on residents to reserve judgment on Tuesday’s arrest until the investigation is completed.
The next day, police were offering an update on their use-of-force investigation.
Rodriquez emphasized that his department hasn’t yet received all the information needed for its use-of-force investigation.
“We want to ensure that we are fair to all the parties, to the young man that’s involved in this and the officer as well,” said Rodriguez. “And to ensure that we … still continue to garner community trust.”
The boy was vandalizing a bench near a school campus, then attempted to flee the officer and resisted arrest, Rodriguez said.
“During the struggle, at some point he bit the officer … causing an injury to his left hand,” Rodriguez added.
They ended up on the ground.
“The officer was on top of the … young man, to control his movements, for the most part. And he stood there until arriving units came to assist him,” Rodriguez said.
He called the video “an incomplete version of what happened,” adding that some witnesses have yet to come forward.
“When a video shows up, it doesn’t really give a complete account of the circumstances that led up to that arrest,” Rodriguez said.
If the boy had complied with the officer’s orders, he would have probably been sent to a diversion program, Rodriguez said.
“By resisting the officer, though, he took it to another level. And that gave us no choice but to … place him under arrest,” said Rodriguez.
“I believe that our officers are respectful and treat people with dignity, and I continue to believe so,” he said.
The incident, which has drawn an audience of thousands on Facebook, comes as city and school officials work to shift much of their approach to youth behavioral issues.
While so-called “zero tolerance” punishment policies have been prominent in student discipline over the last two decades, thousands of districts across the U.S., including Santa Ana Unified, have been rethinking that approach.
Santa Ana Unified has implemented Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports or PBIS, which emphasizes data-based approaches to preventing behavioral issues and providing individual support for students.
District officials say it’s been effective so far in improving student behavior.
At the city level, community activists with the Santa Ana Collaborative for Responsible Development or SACReD and with Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color have successfully pushed city leaders to move toward creating a restorative justice pilot program.
That program would give a certain number of youth a chance to avoid detention if they successfully work to repair the harm caused by their crime.