Santana: Anatomy of a Police State

A still frame of security footage of the 2015 raid on Sky High Holistic.

With more and more municipal budgets across Orange County tilting toward public safety in recent years, there’s seems to be less and less focus from elected officials on transparency and accountability for the largest cost-driver of the municipal budget.

Indeed, when it comes to public safety in Orange County, whether its Republicans or Democrats, par for the course is unchecked spending and secrecy.

Consider the all-Republican Orange County Board of Supervisors, which continues to struggle to establish an independent oversight panel over the sheriff and district attorney but had no problem unanimously spiking spending on deputy salaries and benefits this past election year.

Meanwhile, in Santa Ana, coming off a bruising November campaign where the local police union spent a record sum on city council races, the all-Democrat City Council, is poised to hike police spending this year while also reversing disciplinary measures for controversial officers.

All these elected officials and their agencies spend a significant portion of their budgets on public safety but little time engaging, much less questioning, them.

And even when they seem to, it mostly turns out to be expensive smoke and mirrors – a toxic mix for our pocketbooks, civil liberties and ultimately, for public safety.

That’s what went through my mind this past week when the former chief investigator for the state Fair Political Practices Commission, Gary Schons, abruptly backed out of working with Orange County supervisors to head up the controversial Office of Independent Review at the Sheriff’s Department.

It was nothing short of stunning when county supervisors announced the Schons hire last month – at their next public meeting a week after I publicly criticized them in my Jan. 16 column for leaving key county accountability and oversight positions empty.

Agencies like OIR, performance audit and ethics commission – have been left rudderless…in some cases (like OIR) for nearly a year.

Thus, I was impressed when I saw county supervisors announce such a respected name for that slot, especially so close after I called them out.

Yet before I could even compliment them, Schons was gone.

Now, nobody – not even Schons – is talking.

Makes me think county supervisors jumped the gun in making the announcement.

They need people to think there is oversight.

When you think about it, it is one heck of a vacancy to leave open in a department supervisors argue they see a need for (OIR), right smack in the midst of an unprecedented federal probe over the use of jailhouse snitches that is affecting criminal cases across Orange County and could even imperil the political futures of District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens.

You’d think that supervisors would want an independent assessment of what’s happening inside our criminal justice system while they are making key decisions about it – especially with a federal probe ramping up.

Recently, the Orange County Register reported that county supervisors might have even inadvertently been destroying relevant records in the jail scandal by not understanding that some consent items they were asked to approve by the Sheriff’s Department included records that should not have been slated for destruction.

Indeed, it’s interesting that during this entire jail scandal, county supervisors have seemingly depended entirely on the judgment of Rackauckas and Hutchens, who are themselves right in the midst of it all.

Remember the massively embarrassing jail escape a year ago?

Supervisors have never revisited any of that either, at least not publicly.

One jail commander quietly retired but supervisors have never delved back into what happened there, whether there are institutional problems – like faulty roofs – or just bad managers or both.

A fascinating managers’ rating produced by the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs (which Hutchens bitterly criticized), is the only public document that sheds some light on jail operations by noting the widespread dislike for the former jail commander who quietly retired.

So much for accountability…

All this makes one wonder whether county supervisors should just forget about OIR altogether and lets the feds handle the jails.

They can easily hand off the performance audit function to county Auditor Controller Eric Woolery, who seems to want to conduct those kinds of audits.

And while they’re at it, county supervisors also could consider putting together a commission to select the ethics commission.

They don’t seem up to any of these jobs.

Over in the City of Santa Ana, Democratic council members are themselves grappling with the actions of a little-known city personnel board that reversed the firing of one of the officers involved in a controversial marijuana dispensary raid.

For context, consider that these actions come on the heels of a tough election, where the city’s police union spent a historic sum influencing the city council election and ultimately was able to tilt the majority to their side.

Now, I have no idea of the particulars of this case, in terms of whether the officers’ actions were appropriate or not because I don’t have access to any information, other than a security video that raises serious questions about officers’ actions.

That’s because all the aspects of the investigation, as well as the deliberations of the city council’s obscure personnel review board, are secret.

Nonetheless, the panel’s findings have fueled the officers’ union president from mounting a strong public defense on behalf of his officers.

“The citizen Personnel Board in fact over turned Chief (Carlos) 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 to our reporter, Nick Gerda.

Yet no official will talk publicly about the case?

This Tuesday, Santa Ana city council members will take public comment before they convene into closed session to consider a potential appeal of the personnel board’s actions, which came on a split 5-2 vote.

Yet how is anybody supposed to really offer an informed public comment when there is no public information – per the California Peace Officer Bill of Rights – about the investigation or the deliberations of a citizen oversight panel?

How are council members supposed to adequately consider the issue themselves when no one else in the community has any ability to offer them conflicting information about what they are provided with through official channels?

These are the same folks who very soon will be coming for the city budget.

One of our regular commenters, LFOldTimer, bluntly – and I believe accurately – identified the trend in one of our last stories.

“Whether you want to admit it or not, this is the anatomy of a police state.”