Norberto Santana, Jr.

A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered the truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America.

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During campaign season, politicians always promise voters boots on the ground when it comes to public safety.

It usually works.

For the politician…

Not so much for the public budget.

Public safety depends on much more than just policing.

To really protect public safety, civic leaders need to make smart, sustained investments in a series of community institutions – including the police department – to truly enhance public safety.

Now, that’s a much heavier lift than just offering raises to police officers, as the Santa Ana city council did last year after local elections swept a new council majority into power in 2016, thanks in large part to $400,000 in political mail spending from the local police officers union.

Budgeting like that leads either to higher taxes or bankruptcy.

Indeed, a sales tax hike (the highest in OC) is now proposed for Santa Ana voters this November.

Bankruptcy is rumored to be looming out around 2020.

Note that just a few years ago, Santa Ana was also on the brink of bankruptcy. Back then, outsourcing the Fire Department to the Orange County Fire Authority provided a temporary solution.

Then it was marijuana sales.

Yet the hole in the budget remains.

Do you see a trend?

Now, here’s the worst part of the traditional, boots-on-the-ground political strategy.

It no longer works.

Thanks to skyrocketing public safety pension costs, more money into the police budget doesn’t even translate into more boots on the ground.

While Santa Ana’s general fund spending on the Police Department grew by over $20 million from 2009 to 2016, the number of officers stayed roughly the same over the years. Santa Ana had 269 police officers on its payroll in 2009, according to state data, and 268 officers in 2016, the most recent year available.

If you listen to law enforcement leaders, they themselves will tell you partnering with your local community is the key to real safety.

Last month, I moderated a forum with the Urban Peace Institute at the Delhi Center in Santa Ana with a series of impressive law enforcement local leaders, including Santa Ana Police Chief David Valentin and Santa Ana Unifed School District Police Chief Anastasia Smith.

Both Valentin and Smith did an excellent job of laying out the imperative nature of community partnering when it comes to policing.

People are there to move solutions.

At the very same forum, people like Juan Plasencia, who now works with the City of Santa Ana’s youth commission, told the leaders gathered about coming out as gay to his Catholic parents, which made him homeless. Plasencia explained how civic programming helped him bounced back and how it’s central to other kids experiencing trauma in being able to move forward.

Hafsa Kaka, who manages homeless services for the City of Santa Ana talked about how she and others work with local police to help redirect chronically homeless people out of local jails and into permanent supportive housing.

Steven Kim told the crowd about how programs like Project Kinship allow many ex-gang members and people coming out of prison to break dangerous cycles of violence and redirect their lives through basic mentorship programs.

Bree Alvarado talked about how programs like Neutral Ground at local schools help kids navigate around gang life.

Yet when it comes to the budget, civic leaders don’t invest enough in these kinds of leaders and programs from the non-profit sector or government bureaucracy, which are really central to battling homelessness, truancy, immigration or gangs.

And that seems to be true whether you are looking at the progressive, all Democrat Santa Ana city council or the conservative, all-Republican county board of supervisors.

Now, this month, as we all focus in on election debates and forums – I’m moderating one this Thursday on Santa Ana school board races at Latino Health Access in downtown Santa Ana at 7 p.m. and another Oct. 17 on the Santa Ana city council races – we should remain committed to asking ourselves and those vying for elective office exactly what kinds of community partners for local police need to be prioritized in next year’s budget.

That’s how we ultimately maintain public safety without breaking officer morale, neighborhoods or the budget.

Correction: In a previous version of this article the dates for the upcoming events were incorrect.

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