This article has been updated.
Three former Santa Ana police officers who were fired after allegedly committing crimes during an infamous 2015 pot shop raid could be getting their jobs back, according to sources close to the situation.
One of them, Brandon Sontag, already had his firing overturned by the city’s personnel board, and City Council members met in closed session Friday morning to discuss whether to appeal that decision in Superior Court.
After opening the meeting, council members spent just over an hour behind closed doors. Mayor Miguel Pulido then emerged with Councilman Jose Solorio to briefly say there was no reportable action. They both quickly exited out of a side door.
The deadline to appeal the board’s ruling on Sontag is next Wednesday, so a final decision is expected next Tuesday during the closed session portion of the City Council’s regular meeting.
The other two officers, Nichole Quijas and Jorge Arroyo, also appealed their firings, and decisions are still pending. Sources say they’re likely to get their jobs back if Sontag does.
Details about the personnel board’s decision making have been scarce due to strict secrecy laws surrounding police officer discipline. But documents and sources have shed some light on the situation.
Sontag was fired and charged with two crimes for his alleged actions in the May 2015 raid of Sky High Holistic, a pot dispensary on the southern edge of the city’s Floral Park neighborhood.
A hidden camera system captured Sontag and other officers dismantling security cameras, playing darts and eating what appeared to be food from the shop. The video also captured Officer Nicole Quijas joking about wanting to kick a wheelchair-bound shop volunteer where she had lost her leg.
Matthew Pappas, an attorney for Sky High, gave a copy of the video to Voice of OC and other media. The video was ultimately watched more than 25 million times and became a public relations nightmare for a department beset with officer misconduct issues.
The Orange County District Attorney’s Office launched an investigation and claimed to find no evidence that the food eaten by the officers had marijuana in it. However, DA officials declined to say whether the officers were drug tested.
But the DA did end up filing charges and Chief Carlos Rojas fired the officers. All three face petty theft charges for taking the food in the store. And Sontag received an extra charge of vandalism for allegedly destroying five of the cameras by smashing them on a display case and cash register. They’ve all pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.
The raid was not the first time Sontag’s conduct has been called into question and cost the department.
And in 2009, Sontag fatally shot a woman who had led police on a high-speed car chase from Buena Park with her toddler in the back seat, records show. The DA’s office cleared Sontag of criminal wrongdoing, though the city settled a lawsuit by the family of Susie Young Kim for $2.45 million.
The personnel board that gave Sontag his job back has been around since at least the 1960s and has the power to overturn firings of city employees and reinstate them to their jobs with back pay.
Members of the board are appointed by the City Council, and can only be removed with cause, according to the city’s website.
Little is made public about these cases because of California’s police officers’ bill of rights, which restricts cities from disclosing almost anything about officer misconduct, discipline, or firings.
But what is known in Sontag’s case is the board, on a 5-2 vote, determined that termination was not “the appropriate remedy.” The right response, the board ruled, should have been a seven-week suspension and a transfer from the special enforcement team to patrol.
The five members who voted to overturn the firing were Eugen C. Andres, Paul Gonzalez, Stephanie A. Najera, Maricela Vallejo, and Dennis W. Wootan. Opposing it were Enrique Adame and Maria Isabel Rivera.
Quijas and Arroyo also appealed their firings to the board, though their hearings were apparently postponed and no record is available of any vote by the board.
Meanwhile, the Santa Ana police officers’ union has publicly registered its disapproval of the police chief’s handling of the situation and points to the personnel board decision as proof.
“The citizen Personnel Board in fact over turned Chief Rojas’s decision. The evidence proved the discipline [and] investigation at the direction of Chief Rojas was mishandled,” union President Gerry Serrano wrote in an emailed statement. “When our members make a mistake they expect to be disciplined as long as it’s reasonable, consistent and in a legal manner.”
Rojas, who is restricted in what he can say by employee privacy laws, didn’t return an email seeking a response to Serrano’s comments.
Serrano said an appeal is unlikely to prevail.
“I believe the final step in the administrative process is the Personnel Board,” he wrote Thursday in an email. “They heard all the evidence and it’s unusual for cities to appeal their own volunteer (community citizens) Personnel Board’s decision. Santa Ana has never done that and any court is unlikely to overrule any citizen Personnel Board.”
If their firings are reversed, the officers appear to be entitled to back pay for the entire time they’ve been off the force, since April and May 2016.
Members of the public will be able to comment during this morning’s meeting before the council goes into closed session.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.