Part one of a two-part series.

When Vanessa Cerda was told about a man with a camera talking to a police officer one afternoon last month in Jerome Park, which is adjacent to her Townsend Street neighborhood, she didn’t waste any time confronting him.

“We don’t like people who talk to cops,” she said emphatically. And her tune didn’t change when the man introduced himself as a Voice of OC reporter working on a story about the city’s community policing program.

“We don’t talk to [police] because they’re not with us, they’re against us,” Cerda explained as her young daughter peddled around on a scooter and chanted the anti-police brutality slogan commonly uttered in minority communities, “no justice, no peace. Fuck the police.”

“There’s no such thing as community police,” Cerda said.

To be sure, the Townsend Street area, which has been under a controversial gang injunction since summer of 2014, is not your typical Santa Ana neighborhood. And Cerda, who is militantly anti-police and a leader of the opposition to the gang injunction, is not your typical Santa Ana resident.

But she is far from alone in condemning the Santa Ana Police Department’s community policing efforts. Many agree that community-oriented policing is virtually non-existent in Santa Ana despite a mandate in the city’s strategic plan to overhaul the program.

“I know growing up in Santa Ana, police officers don’t want to talk to people,” said Ben Vasquez, a local high school teacher and activist. “They are in fear of the community. If you approach a police officer, they’re going to tell you to stop, and turn around or don’t talk to them.”

Better ‘Customer Service’

Department officials, meanwhile, insist they take community policing seriously and Chief Carlos Rojas will rattle off a list of initiatives the department has implemented to better connect officers to residents.

Commander Ken Gominsky, tasked with spearheading the city’s attempt to remake community policing, said he believes it comes down to good “customer service.” The strategy revolves around working with neighborhood associations and programs like the Gang Reduction Intervention Partnership, he said.

And at a recent community forum near Townsend Street, Rojas talked about the department’s “Coffee With a Cop” program and an effort to bring residents into the department to participate in actual police work.

Rojas says the volunteer program, which includes some 70 to 80 people, opens up the “house of the people” to residents and is one of the most effective avenues toward building trust.

Community policing is “really about us [community and police] as a team,” Rojas said when asked at the forum to define the term. “One team. One mission.”

But a disconnect remains. In interviews and at forums, residents from many corners of the city scoff at the notion of being on the same team as the police, and say an “us versus them” mentality is in reality far more pervasive.

Brian Leal, a youth advocate who was also a panel member at the forum, said he remembers them hauling off friends and family and acting “unprofessionally” when they were called for help.

“Growing up in Santa Ana, I never really had a positive opinion of the police department,” Leal said.

Step Out of the Car

Such a gap between the perceptions of police brass and the residents they serve is certainly not unique to Santa Ana. As community eruptions in recent years following acts of police brutality in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and New York City show, there is in many respects a nationwide failure to communicate, especially in cities with large minority populations.

And experts say bridging this gap requires changes in police culture at an elemental level.

“It’s not about doing basketball leagues, it’s not about going to meetings. It’s about every single officer you employ operating from a problem solving, community oriented, this is how we’re going to take care of business” point of view, said Chris Burbank, retired Salt Lake City police chief and director of law enforcement policy at the Center for Policing Equity.

Burbank and other experts agree that a good first step toward better community policing – especially in neighborhoods with historically bad police relations — is for officers to step out of their patrol cars. The thinking goes that by being on foot, bicycle or even horseback, officers become familiar faces, members of the community, and by nature of the process more trustworthy.

It also gives a chance for residents who don’t normally seek out interactions with police a chance to get to know them.

“Something that promotes direct, non-confrontational, neutral or positive interactions between the police and the community,” said Philip M. Lyons, dean and director of the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University in Texas Lyons.

But experts are also quick to say that such a strategy only works when other components – like changing focus from enforcement to community problem solving – are in place. Having officers on foot patrol and focused on arrests would likely only worsen an already negative dynamic.

“That’s no help at all,” said Elliott Currie, professor of Criminology, Law and Society at UC Irvine. “It’s got to go along with that broader commitment to building trust and taking the community seriously.”

Just as important as regular face time between residents and officers is the change in crime fighting tactics. Under a community oriented policing model, officers help organize neighborhood watch groups, analyze crime trends, attempt to find the root cause and employ the residents in the solution.

For example, an elderly woman complains about speeders in her neighborhood. Lyons says a traditional approach would be to dispatch an officer to hand out tickets. Under a community policing approach, police study the traffic patterns of the neighborhood, and determine what the problem really is.

It might be that the road needs speed bumps, Lyons said. Or it might be that you have a little old lady who needs something to do. Whatever the solution is, officers then go back and study to see whether the fix worked, he said.

When community trust has been established, residents will take the initiative to tell officers who are creating problems in the neighborhood, Burbank said. But the response has to be something different than going in for an arrest. It has to be what can police do short of an arrest that will change his behavior, and also involve the community in the process.

“You will never have enough cops in the world to prevent crime from occurring. But we have enough good citizens,” Burbank said.

And to say police don’t have enough resources for this transition isn’t a good reason for not doing it, according to Lyons.

“To some extent, the we’re too busy for this, is a bit of a red herring. If you really are too busy that suggests all the more the need to drill down and solve this in a more meaningful way,” Lyons said.

Once a Bastion of Progressive Policing

Ironically, a good example of a progressive approach to community policing can be found in Santa Ana — 30 years ago.

In 1983, former Police Chief Ray Davis announced that the city would no longer be cooperating with federal immigration officials in their sweeps for undocumented immigrants.

It was seen as daringly progressive, and immigration officials blasted Davis for it. But Davis defended the move as necessary to earning the trust of the entire city, including immigrants.

Davis was also among the first police chiefs to implement foot patrols, create neighborhood substations and community watch groups, and turn his department towards a real community oriented policing model.

But Davis’ retirement in 1987 coincided with a historical spike in crime rates brought on by a combination of demographics and the crack cocaine epidemic that gripped cities during that era. As a result, Davis’ successor, Police Chief Paul Walters, placed more emphasis on putting bad guys in jail and ultimately shifted away from the foot patrols of the Davis era.

In the 1990s, Walters and other city leaders spearheaded the construction of a new downtown jail to cope with a reality in which officers would arrest suspects, only to be turned away at the county jail because there wasn’t enough room to house them. But by the time the jail was built, crime rates were declining, and today the jail rarely houses local criminals.

In order to subsidize the jail, the city reversed its policy regarding undocumented immigrants and contracted with the federal government to house immigration detainees in exchange for revenue. Since then, the jailing of undocumented immigrants has been a sore point for some residents and community activists.

Still, Walters maintains that he also presided over a community oriented policing focused department. In response to questions about the issue, Walters provided a reporter with examples of how specific problems in the city – homeless criminals at a shopping plaza and the “cruising” phenomenon that some complained had brought crime to Santa Ana – were solved by closely analyzing the issues and deploying detailed plans to solve them.

Abraham Medina, director of Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color, sees the Ray Davis approach to policing as a much better model. He said the ICE contract, gang injunctions and other “tough on crime” measures show a department out of step with true community oriented policing.

Medina also has criticism for Gominsky, the police commander in charge of implementing a new community policing model.

Words describing community policing as customer service “reflect that what we see is the police department is being run like a business, not like an organization accountable to the needs of the community and provide safety to everybody, not just a few,” Medina said.

How Santa Ana will overhaul its community oriented policing model isn’t yet clear. Rojas said at the forum they haven’t yet begun the transition because they are waiting on assembling a citywide community engagement plan. City officials say the plan will be completed at some point in the current fiscal year, which ends next June.

According to Gominsky, the city will also hire academics to put together a community survey so the department knows what residents expect from community policing. The contract is supposed to come before council in the next month, Gominsky said.

And just this week, city officials announced a $1.25 million grant award from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. The city has been awarded $2.5 million total in such grant funds, with the money going toward hiring 20 new police officers. Officials also say the funds will allow the department to create a new community relations division focused on community oriented policing.

But there are no indications that local law enforcement will be ending the ICE contract or gang injunctions any time soon, steps that activists say are crucial to begin the process of building trust in the department.

Resisting Transparency

It is also unlikely that the department will accede to demands from residents and activists to be more transparent in how it disciplines officers. Rojas has defended the current system, saying that he “takes officers to the mat” if they engage in misconduct that stems from a problem of the “heart” rather than the “mind.”

If there are disciplinary actions, they’re rarely made public. The state Police Officers Bill of Rights guarantees confidentiality on that front. Past efforts to unwind the bill have been defeated.

Yet there are signs the police department is taking steps toward greater community engagement. For one, it is considering requiring officers to wear body cameras while on patrol and held four community forums on the issue.

But even these forums show there is a significant gulf to be bridged.

At the most recent forum, held at the downtown headquarters of Latino Health Access, Medina and officer Mike McCarthy had an exchange about policing in the era of ubiquitous cell phone video.

McCarthy told Medina that in the last year, he’s encountered more people resisting police orders than he ever had before. And conflict between police and residents usually begins when a resident refused a police officer’s order, McCarthy said, adding that in those situations it’s incumbent upon the resident to obey the order.

McCarthy chalked it up to a new culture created by more prevalent video and a media obsession with airing cops behaving badly.

But Medina and others say that if police officers put a little less emphasis on being obeyed and showed a little more empathy toward the plight of residents, they might earn more respect.

Sandra Sastegui, a 26-year-old resident of a neighborhood just east of Townsend Street said many residents in her neighborhood don’t have driver’s licenses due to their undocumented status.

Most of them have either never had an interaction with a Santa Ana police officer, and she says most residents in the neighborhood don’t trust police enough to call them when they’re needed. Of those that have interacted with police, it’s been limited to a traffic stop, with the officer then impounding the resident’s car for driving without a license, she said.

Sastegui said her husband’s only interaction with an officer in Santa Ana occurred when he was pulled over for having tires slightly too large for the vehicle he was driving. The car was then impounded, she said.

Yet despite having only those kinds of negative experiences, Sastegui isn’t necessarily anti-cop. She said she wants to see officers every now and then, walking the beat, getting to know her and her neighbors. That alone, she said, would go a long way.

“They should get out of their cars and talk to people.”

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *