Santa Ana Will Weigh Becoming the Next OC City with a Police Oversight Board

JESSICA RUIZ, Voice of OC

The Santa Ana Police Department.

Santa Ana City Council members are set to talk Tuesday about becoming one of the only cities in the county to establish a police oversight board.

Police officers “have extraordinary power and some of the most power than anyone in government. Having a system of checks and balances and having oversight is incredibly important,” said Jennifer Rojas, a policy advocate and organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union in Southern California.

“Especially when police have the power to put people in jail, arrest people, and even take someone’s life,” she said.

The ACLU has apparently found an ally on the concept in Republican Councilwoman Ceci Iglesias, who is expected to bring it up at the Council’s Tuesday meeting. Iglesias, who placed the discussion item on Tuesday’s city council agenda, said she was unavailable Monday night for comment.

Iglesias earlier this year took issue with a $25 million raise for police officers approved by the City Council in February. Iglesias and Councilman Juan Villegas were the lone opposing votes on the proposal. She and Villegas also voted against any mid-year budget changes to fund the raises, prompting staff to search for other ways to pay the increased salaries like pulling money out of other departments.

Both Iglesias and Villegas have become the focus of recall efforts since opposing the police union raise proposal.

The police review board discussion comes after a federal grand jury indicted former Santa Ana police officer Brian Patric Booker on July 31 for allegedly beating a man who was complying with police commands and then lying about it in official reports.

Booker was indicted on three felonies resulting from the June 2014 arrest of Edgar Vargas Arzate. The incident was captured on video and at the time garnered national attention.

And the city settled two wrongful death lawsuits in 2016 resulting from police shootings for a combined $6.8 million, OC Weekly reported in 2017.

Santa Ana’s current police chief is David Valentin.

Anaheim is the first city in Orange County to have a civilian police review board, according to city spokesman Mike Lyster, who described the city’s police department as the “largest municipal police department in the county.”

“We were the first to actually adopt a police review board, and that goes back to the first iteration of this board, which then was called the Public Safety Board.”

That commission was formed in 2014 in response to protests and unrest in the city following the fatal shootings of two Anaheim men by police officers two years earlier.

Rojas called the lack of police oversight boards across the county “alarming,” and said it’s important that cities “get oversight right” and that insufficient oversight is “worse than no oversight, because there’s so many components necessary to make an oversight body really effective.”

“And not all of these components are even present in Anaheim, so I wouldn’t say that Anaheim is the best example of oversight,” she added.

Comprised of seven residents, Anaheim’s police review board creates “this direct line between policing and our city and members of the community,” Lyster said.

As part of their duties, police review board members in Anaheim get real-time notifications

“Whenever we have a major incident like an officer-involved shooting or … any major incident involving police, board members get real-time notifications, and typically one of the board members will be dispatched to the scene for an on-site briefing,” he added.

Lyster said board members also “hear from the public,” and that board meetings “are one more opportunity, in addition to going straight to the police department or straight to the city, for somebody to share a concern, question or really any type of information regarding policing in Anaheim.”

Board members also review and make recommendations on potential policy changes, as well as hear about police training and practices, Lyster said.

Rojas said some of the main components police oversight boards should have are independence from the police department — “meaning that no former or current law enforcement should serve as members” — and that the boards should have “the power to investigate independently.”

“So having an oversight body investigate complaints … having independent funding from the city to hire investigators and full-time paid staff. Ultimately, the point of oversight is that police should not be the ones to investigate themselves,” Rojas said.

“Part of what comes from having investigatory powers are full, unfettered access to police department records and having the resources to conduct investigations.”

Anaheim’s police review board works with what “we refer to as an independent auditor, which is a contractor who is completely independent, but is a go-between, between the board and the city,” Lyster said.

The police review board is expected to evolve as it already has evolved over the past few years, he added. “How exactly that would happen remains to be seen, but we would always view it as a growing body.”

As the first oversight board of its kind in the county, Lyster said “there’s certainly opportunity for its role to expand down the road.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC intern. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.