Simmering tensions between Santa Ana City Council members and the new leadership of the city’s police union came to a head at the council’s public meeting Tuesday, with a discussion regarding officer pay raises descending into attacks from each side.
The union has been seeking extra pay for officers to stem what they describe as a wave of officers leaving for other agencies.
The proposal didn’t sit well with the four council members present at Tuesday’s meeting, who noted that the union’s new labor contract started just six weeks ago.
“It is unprecedented to see an organization come and say, ‘we just finished our negotiations, and now we want you to give us some more money.’ That is not the correct procedure,” said Councilman Sal Tinajero.
Tinajero and the other council members present were adamant that they supported the officers, as well as more pay raises for police as part of the next round of contract negotiations. But they said it should be handled through that process, which is scheduled to start in December or January.
“We have a lot of very hard working officers in the city of Santa Ana,” said Councilman David Benavides, adding that “we definitely want to go into the negotiating table” at the scheduled time to discuss “full packages” for officers.
The union’s pay raise proposal comes against the backdrop of a newly emboldened police union. In April, rank-and-file officers elected a new board that led to the last union president, John Franks, being replaced by Gerry Serrano. It was driven by a desire by officers to pursue a more aggressive approach in dealing with city leaders, sources said at the time.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Tinajero accused the union president of falsely smearing council members by making wild exaggerations about crime spiraling out of control in the city.
The councilman said his phone had blown up with calls recently from several business owners who received an email from Serrano claiming crime has reached “unprecedented” levels due to a lack of leadership by the City Council, City Manager David Cavazos, and Police Chief Carlos Rojas.
“Since our current city leadership, City Manager Cavazos and Chief Rojas, violent crime/shootings have sky rocketed over 500% percent [sic] since 2012,” Serrano wrote in the email to labor and business leaders.
“It is common for our community to wait hours for a police officer response to a 911 call. Nothing has been done and this has fallen on deaf ears,” Serrano added, urging the email’s recipients to support the police union-backed election challenger to Councilman Roman Reyna.
Tinajero pointed to statistics he said showed that shootings in the city are below 2012 levels, suggesting the union’s claims were completely misleading. He went on to say the new union president, Gerry Serrano, has been trying “to kick [us] in the head…how do you work in good faith with someone” like that.
“There’s things that I have seen happen since this new [police union] president has taken over that I have never seen in my entire time [on] any elected body,” Tinajero added.
Councilwoman Angelica Amezcua echoed Tinajero, saying the union’s claim in the email of a 500-percent increase in crime was “exaggerated.”
Such harsh words from the two sides in public is a sign of how far relations between the union and most council members have soured. The union is supporting challengers to incumbent councilmen Roman Reyna and Vincent Sarmiento this November, as well as two other candidates — Mayor Miguel Pulido and Jose Solorio.
If the union-supported candidates prevail, it would have four friendly seats on the council who could pass policy changes sought by officers.
In an interview Tuesday evening, the union president disputed the council members’ claims and said they’ve been refusing to address a major increase in shootings in the city.
“The facts are there that shootings are [up] in Santa Ana significantly. And so for them to turn a blind eye on it is irresponsible,” Serrano said.
“The reality is officers are short-staffed, don’t feel supported, and are looking to leave to other departments,” he continued, adding that he’s been raising these issues to council members since April.
There was even a shooting during Tuesday night’s council meeting in which a bullet struck a car seat just inches from a two-year-old girl’s head, Serrano said.
“I’m saddened at the lack of response” to the shootings increase and other issues, Serrano said.
Rojas, meanwhile, acknowledged that an internal department analysis from July showed a major increase in shootings in the first half of this year compared to prior years. But he said the findings were wrong, because they were based on data entry errors and comparisons that were not apples-to-apples.
“The data collected and the methodology used to compare shooting data was inaccurate,” Rojas said in an email to Voice of OC. “We are taking steps to improve our systems to ensure accuracy in the reporting of information.”
Pointing to the department’s own report showing a 500-percent increase in shootings since 2012, Serrano said the police chief’s explanation is essentially Rojas saying the department’s record-keeping is “incompetent.”
Rojas responded that he’s “very proud of the work done by our police department employees.” He also provided a memo explaining the data errors.
As for how much shootings have increased, Rojas said he couldn’t answer because of a lack of accurate data at this point.
“I believe there has been an increase in shootings. However, until we use uniformed methodology in comparing shootings each year I can’t accurately speak to the increase/decrease,” Rojas said.
But he did point to the department’s official crime statistics that are reported each year to the FBI.
That data shows that the total violent crime rate this year has increased 7.4 percent compared to last year and 22 percent since 2012. It’s up 15 percent compared to the average for the past decade.
The pay raise proposal was put on the agenda by Mayor Miguel Pulido, who has developed a strong relationship with the new union leadership. But Pulido wasn’t at Tuesday’s meeting to defend his item, apparently because of delays returning from a vacation in Montana.
Councilman Roman Reyna was also absent, and Councilwoman Michele Martinez participated by phone earlier in the meeting but left before the police item came up.
Council members who were at the meeting said it would be irresponsible for them to approve the requested pay raise until they know there’s enough money in the budget to support it. City staff estimated the raises would cost $3 million per year.
The city was pushed to the brink of bankruptcy a few years ago, Tinajero said, largely because “people were cutting political deals, and it was not helpful to our residents.”
As for officers leaving, Cavazos said the department has in fact added 44 officers in last three years. “We’re actually adding a lot more officers than we had previously,” he said.
The four council members at the meeting said they had three options for the pay raise proposal: they could have delayed it to a future meeting where Pulido could argue for it, they could have simply not voted on it, or they could take a vote to kill the item.
They opted to kill the item, voting 4-0 to not approve it. The vote was by council members Tinajero, Amezcua, Vincent Sarmiento, and David Benavides.
“I think we have to do what’s right for our officers and not what’s right for politics,” said Tinajero. “This is not easy for me to say. In fact it can be a little dangerous for me to say.”
Benavides said there needs to be “trustworthy communication” and “honest communication” between the police union and city leadership.
“Some of those bridges are being broken or burned, or there is a lack of really trying to work together,” Benavides said. “Frankly I think it’s a misrepresentation of those hard-working officers that I described.”
Serrano, meanwhile, says council members are the ones breaking bridges.
“I think it is the council that is not being honest and utilizing their entrusted authority to mislead the community in stating crime is down and there are no problems with the police department,” he said.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.