Santa Ana is joining the list of California cities considering additional civilian oversight of police shootings and other uses of force.
During heated discussions with their colleagues in recent weeks, most of the City Council supported a discussion of new oversight, including the possible creation of a civilian review panel that would examine police use-of-force incidents, policies, and training.
“I’m a big believer in checks and balances” said Councilwoman Michele Martinez, who brought the issue before the council at meetings in March and this month.
“This city has functioned and has run without accountability. We need accountability.”
The city spent $8.5 million in taxpayer funds last year to settle three cases, including $6.8 million to settle two lawsuits alleging Santa Ana officers improperly shot and killed two men.
The settlements were in cases filed by family members of Jason Hallstrom and Ernesto Canepa, who were shot and killed in 2013 and 2015, respectively. A third settlement of $1.7 million was approved last year over the police shooting of an unarmed homeless man, Kevin Arellano.
“I think that we always have got to find a way to make the system work better,” said Councilman Sal Tinajero. “The $6 million is Exhibit A. The dead body is Exhibit B.”
“In my profession, yeah I want to get rid of bad teachers because then it elevates our profession. I think the same should go for our police department.”
Altogether, Santa Ana taxpayers have covered more than $17 million in legal costs over the past decade for cases alleging police used excessive force, wrongfully killed people, or violated civil rights, according to city data.
But others on the council argue there’s already enough oversight of officers’ actions, such as the District Attorney's Office, and that civilian review could cause rushes to judgment against officers.
"Sometimes they can become just another layer of review. And I think we already have quite a few for our officers," said Mayor Miguel Pulido.
"I think it’s not broken. Don’t fix it, leave it alone. They have plenty, plenty of review."
Pulido also pointed out the DA's office has found no reason to prosecute any of Santa Ana’s officers for illegal use of force in the last few years.
Council members have directed city staff to prepare options for additional police force review. A study session on the issue is scheduled for their May 2 meeting, where members of the public will be able to comment.
In California, the structure of civilian oversight over city police is up to each city council. Many cities, like Santa Ana, do not have a citizen panel to review police misconduct complaints or use-of-force incidents, except to decide appeals from officers who want their disciplinary punishment reduced.
At the other end of the spectrum is Oakland, where voters in November approved one of the nation’s most powerful civilian oversight bodies.
Oakland’s new commission will oversee investigators and an executive director who look into allegations of police misconduct. The commission will be able to issue subpoenas for documents and testimony, recommend discipline against officers, fire the police chief for cause, and create a list of police chief candidates the mayor must choose from.
The investigators are guaranteed access to a wide range of police files and records, other than personnel files. Personnel documents, which are highly protected under state law, will be accessible only to the commission’s executive director, who will be bound by confidentiality rules.
Santa Ana’s discussion comes as Orange County’s largest city, Anaheim, debates whether to create an investigative police commission, keep its limited review board the way it is, or abolish it. And on Tuesday, Los Angeles’ police commission approved a new policy requiring officers to de-escalate situations, when it's “safe and reasonable," before using deadly force. Officers will be evaluated about their de-escalation efforts as part of possible discipline.
In Santa Ana, it would take support from four of the seven council members to pass additional police oversight.
Four council members have shown a strong interest in exploring it: Martinez, Tinajero, Vicente Sarmiento, and David Benavides.
Two council members have argued that additional civilian oversight isn’t needed: Pulido and Juan Villegas.
The remaining council member, Jose Solorio, has been less clear, saying he sees value in both the supporting and opposing arguments.
“At the end of the day, in terms of accountability and holding our police officers and all departments accountable, you know the buck stops with us on the City Council. So I don’t also just want to, you know, give away this very important responsibility to somebody else, especially if we ourselves haven’t looked at it,” Solorio said at the March 7 meeting.
At that meeting, Solorio voted against continued discussion at the City Council, saying it should instead be discussed by the council’s public safety committee. But at a later meeting, he supported the full council’s continued discussion of the issue.
If a majority of the council wants an oversight body to be in place within the next year, and there are only four votes for it, they might have to set aside the funding for it in June during their annual budget approval. The city’s budget, which covers the fiscal year starting July 1, can be passed with four votes, but mid-year adjustments require five.
The Santa Ana police officers’ union hasn’t publicly weighed in on the issue.
The union endorsed Pulido, Villegas, and Solorio in their elections last year, spending more than $400,000 to support them and a fourth candidate who wasn’t successful. The four other council members either weren’t up for election last year or did not receive police union campaign spending or endorsements.
In arguing against new civilian police oversight, Villegas, who works as a sheriff’s special officer, said it could lead to rushes to judgment against officers.
“I don’t want people to get hurt, because police work can be a little messy,” said Villegas.
“People make mistakes. We all make mistakes,” Villegas added. “I don’t like to Monday night quarterback anyone.”
Benavides took offense at that sentiment.
“When you’re talking about millions being paid out because of wrongful actions, and lives being lost, it’s a lot more than ‘a little messy.’ ” he said.
“We want to make sure to have levels of accountability, again, to ensure that…the name and the work of the fine law enforcement officers within the Santa Ana police are protected and not tainted by some of those that are not performing their duties as they should.”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.