As federal authorities continue a civil rights investigation into the June beating of Edgar Vargas Arzate by four Santa Ana police officers, community activists and Arzate’s lawyer are questioning why the officers have remained on the street rather than be reassigned until the investigation is complete.
The officers, responding to a burglary call, arrested Arzate in the early morning hours of June 20 in the front yard of a central Santa Ana home. At the time, the officers reported that the then 26-year-old Arzate had violently resisted arrest.
Arzate, who is also known by the last name of Vargas, grabbed an officer’s leg, kicked at officers and tried to bite an officer’s arm, according to the department’s official report of the incident. The officers responded by repeatedly punching and kicking the 5-foot-9, 160-pound Arzate, hitting him multiple times with a baton, and using a taser on him, according to the report.
The department would not release the full names of officers involved, only their last names and first initials. The OC Weekly has identified one as Brian Booker, while Voice of OC, based on the police report and a database of public employees, identified two others as Sonny Lim and Adam Aloyian. The other is A. Aparicio, according to the police report.
Arzate was taken into custody and charged with attempted burglary, battery on a police officer and resisting arrest, with the enhancement of inflicting “great bodily injury” on Booker, apparently because the officer hurt his hand while punching Arzate in the head while Arzate was grabbing onto his leg.
Following the arrest, a complaint was filed against the officers, alleging excessive use of force, and the department began an investigation.
Then in July, a video of the altercation captured by a home security was made public. It showed the officers descending on a seemingly compliant Arzate in the front yard of the home and punching him and beating him with a baton while he lay face down on the ground.
In October, the FBI confirmed it had launched a civil rights investigation into the arrest, which prompted District Attorney Tony Rackauckas to drop all of the charges against Arzate except the attempted burglary charge.
Then the FBI took things a step further by asserting in a special visa declaration for Arzate, who is undocumented, that one or more of the Santa Ana officers committed a crime related to “felony assault” when they beat him.
Despite the multiple investigations and the FBI’s assertion, the officers have remained on patrol.
This galls Vargas’ lawyer and local activists, who say the fact that Police Chief Carlos Rojas hasn’t put the officers on administrative leave, or desk duty, shows he isn’t taking the investigation into Vargas’ beating seriously.
“You would think a responsible police agency would keep [the officers] off the street until they learned what really took place,” said Frank Bittar, the public defender representing Vargas. “It’s almost a poke in the eye to any exterior investigations that are taking place.”
Rojas would not agree to an interview, citing the FBI investigation. But department spokesman Anthony Bertagna dismissed any notion that the department isn’t taking the investigation seriously.
“There was a citizens’ complaint that is being investigated by internal affairs,” Bertagna said. “Until there is some type of reason that requires them to be put on administrative leave, they will continue to work…as far as the FBI investigation — that is not our investigation, we don’t have anything to do with that.”
Abraham Medina, project director of the activist group Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color, said Rojas has in general been uncommunicative with the public regarding the incident and, in doing so, inflicted serious damage to the department’s credibility among residents.
“It is very irresponsible on the chief’s part to refuse to talk about the incident and leave the officers on the street even when the FBI has stated in a legal document that those officers committed felonious acts,” Medina said. “His actions are definitely not repairing community relations — they are creating more distrust.”
A Patchwork of Policies
While officers involved in shooting incidents are usually taken off the street until investigations are complete, its not an automatic practice in other use of force cases, said Maria “Maki” Haberfeld, a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
“It’s not unusual,” Haberfeld said of the decision to keep the officers on the street. “[But] that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.”
She added that there is really no such thing as a standard response to use of force complaints in this country, which she said is unique to American law enforcement.
“It’s a horrible thing — it doesn’t provide for basic standards for the profession,” Haberfeld said. “We have the most decentralized country on earth when it comes to law enforcement [and] decentralized policing is not professional policing.”
A lack of standards often leads to a lack of transparency, Haberfeld said, an issue that has been front and center in the public consciousness in Orange County and throughout the country in recent years.
In 2011, Fullerton Police Chief Michael Sellers resigned amid heavy criticism after allowing the officers who beat Kelly Thomas to remain on the streets in the ensuing weeks and generally refusing to address the issue publicly. And riots that broke out in Anaheim after a spate of police shootings in 2012 were largely blamed on an antagonistic relationship between the police department and the city’s majority Latino community.
This year, the police department in Ferguson, Missouri became the national epicenter for resident anger toward police in the aftermath of the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white officer. Last week, riots broke out after a criminal grand jury chose not to indict the officer.
Regarding the Arzate case, Haberfeld reviewed Santa Ana’s use of force policy and said it seemed to follow “acceptable protocol.” But said department brass must have an explanation for their decisions and that “they’d be well advised to give this explanation to the public.”
Santa Ana Police Commander Christopher Revere said he understands that there would be frustration with department’s approach to the investigation, but insists there are good reasons for it.
“We are confined by a few different things,” Revere said, pointing to the Police Officer’s Bill of Rights, a state law that, among other things, influences how a department must conduct investigations into officers.
“We have to be concerned with the rights of the victim [Vargas], but also the rights of the officers,” Revere said. “We also have to concern ourselves with not interfering with any outside investigation and letting it run its course.”
Members of the Santa Ana City Council reached for comment said the questions by Bittar and the activists are legitimate, but would not join them in their condemnation of the police department.
“My knee jerk reaction is that I am concerned for the officers’ safety and the safety of the community,” said Councilman Roman Reyna. “But I would have to follow up with Chief Rojas to get his perspective and find out why he came up with the course of action that he did.”
Councilman David Benavides said it was a “fair question” and one he would take up with Rojas; but added, “I think the first thing to keep in mind is there have been no charges as of yet. No findings of wrongdoing as of yet.”
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