The Connect-to-Council organization this week held a community forum focused on community policing in Santa Ana, bringing together residents and a panel of speakers to talk about how to build greater trust in the police department.
The forum came just as city officials are in the early stages of revamping the city’s community policing strategies, a goal outlined in a city strategic plan approved last year. However, some activists have complained that the police department hasn’t made much if any progress in several months.
Included on the panel were Police Chief Carlos Rojas; Carroll Seron, a criminology, law and society professor at UC Irvine; community activist Gabriela Hernandez; youth advocate Brian Leal; Lee de Leon, president of Templo Calvario, CDC; and James Armendaris, who works on police-community reconciliation with the Orange County Human Relations Commission.
Erika Aguilar, reporter with the public radio station KPCC, moderated the discussion, which was held at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, just a stone’s throw away from the Townsend Street neighborhood, which is currently under a gang injunction.
Panelists discussed a range of topics related to community policing, starting off with how to define the term. Rojas defined the term as a partnership between community and the police and said his department already implements the concept with its "Coffee With a Cop" program and various other initiatives connecting citizens and police officers.
But perhaps the most common theme to arise during the discussion was police accountability, with several panelists and residents in the audience emphasizing the need to hold officers accountable as a crucial step toward greater trust in the department.
Hernandez made a series of claims that she says stand in the way of true accountability. To start with, she said, City Council members fear the political power of the police officers union. She went on to say that the department's investigations of itself aren't credible, and recent scandals involving the District Attorney’s office show it can't be counted on to hold police accountable.
Seron suggested that citizens should push for a civilian oversight board that has “teeth” and can make autonomous decisions regarding punishment of police officers who engage in misconduct.
Rojas responded that such a civilian review board already exists in the form of a personnel board, which has the final say on punitive actions. Members of the board are appointed by City Council, and its meetings are held in secret.
The mood at the meeting was mostly relaxed, but there was a moment of tension when resident and local high school teacher Ben Vasquez asked Rojas whether the city would cancel its contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Many residents in this heavily Latino immigrant city have said they can’t trust police officers when they are cooperating with ICE to jail undocumented immigrants.
Rojas responded no.
“No community policing then,” Vasquez said.
“That’s your opinion,” Rojas replied.