A string of protests against police violence in Orange County is challenging local officials to rethink police accountability and law enforcement’s role in politics and systemic public safety issues, right on time for budget season — where cities spend more on cops over other areas like youth programs, parks and libraries.
And as nationwide outcry grows over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd and violence against Black people in the U.S., local county activists are increasingly calling for more police accountability in the form of official civilian oversight panels.
Anaheim was the first OC city to put such a commission in place, while others like Fullerton and Santa Ana have in the past dismissed the idea.
Calling for systemic changes to police oversight is no longer a “radical” thing, said Kelsey Brewer, who to the best of her knowledge is the Orange County Young Democrats’ first Black woman chair.
After all, she said, past criticisms of law enforcement have crossed political party lines in OC before.
When outcry grew over the Fullerton police killing of Kelly Thomas in 2011, Republican Councilman Bruce Whitaker joined Democrat Sharon Quirk-Silva — a council member at the time — in calling for more accountability at the police department.
In Costa Mesa, a Republican council majority back in 2012 publicly pressed local police union officials on their contracts and overtime spending, as well as the use of helicopters when the city budget was stressed.
And this month it was the county’s top cop, Sheriff Don Barnes, who was one of the first local Republican officials to publicly condemn the white officer filmed on video pressing his knee against Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes straight while other officers in the video looked on.
On Tuesday, Republican County Supervisor Andrew Do – who is up for re-election this November in central Orange County – also publicly expressed concern over the implications of Floyd’s killing, and called on reform to happen “at the local level.”
In Santa Ana, local young progressives and activists have for years led the calls for more police oversight and criticisms of the city’s police union. But it was one current and one former Republican on a majority Democrat City Council who voted against city spending on police officer salaries last year and won supporters on the issue both from the left and right.
Those examples “just tell me that ideas around systemic police reform aren’t radical at all,” Brewer said.
“Substitute a police department with some other agency in a city,” she added. “If I was to come and say, ‘Hey, every year somebody has died at the library. I think we should get a commission together to see what caused that and come up with recommendations to avoid that in the future’ — would that be radical?”
The disconnect comes in when it’s law enforcement that’s the subject of calls for significant reform, Brewer said. “This is a government service and should have proper public oversight specifically dedicated to it.”
“Have You Had Enough Yet?”
Most local criticisms of law enforcement oversight and public safety in OC stem from the aggressive involvement of local police unions in city politics.
Back in 2012, OC council members from a handful of cities like Buena Park, Costa Mesa and Fullerton publicly recounted tales of police union bullying they experienced around labor contracts discussions that at the time were underway.
Buena Park Councilman Fred Smith that year said he was pulled over by a police officer telling him he smelled of alcohol back in 2010. Though Smith was sober and never arrested, Smith said the officer called the next day to say, “Have you had enough yet?”
Officers also blocked a coffee shop parking lot that had posted campaign signs backing Smith for reelection, he said. The officers then entered the shop — one gripping his holstered gun — and told the people working there that the signs weren’t allowed.
Around that time, Costa Mesa’s then-Republican Mayor Jim Righeimer was harassed by private detectives hired by police union officials, who later disavowed the actions of the investigators. Lawsuits around the issue swirled for years.
Smith, another Republican, over the phone Tuesday said the national events playing out on his TV were “bringing back a lot of bad memories” from that year. Yet despite his past troubles, he said police oversight in his city, which is comparably smaller than cities like neighboring Anaheim, is much better suited to the council than a commission composed of civilians.
His city’s police department has seen leadership changes since 2012, and he said the law firm that was tied that year to the union’s aggressive tactics in places like Buena Park and Costa Mesa, Lackie, Dammeier & McGill, has since left the picture. He now aims praise at what the city’s police officer ranks have become over recent years.
“We have dismissed officers through our City Council’s own review board. It’s working in Buena Park very well,” he said.
In cities with large Latino populations and many people of color like Santa Ana and Anaheim, community members and local leaders are singing a different tune.
Back in 2016, the rise of Police Sgt. Gerry Serrano within the ranks of Santa Ana’s police union set the stage for years of aggressive spending in city elections. His tenure as union president has been marked by allegations of bribery and pushes for the City Council to oust police chiefs and city managers. Attempts to reach Serrano by phone were unsuccessful, and he didn’t respond to email requests for comment.
Police chiefs in both Santa Ana and Anaheim were recently ousted in large part because of pressure from local police unions over officer accountability issues.
In 2017, former Anaheim police chief Raul Quezada alleged his union ousted him for a number of reasons, including questioning whether a police captain in his department had violated unspecified state and federal laws.
That same year, former Santa Ana police chief Carlos Rojas in a lawsuit claimed he was pushed out by his union after reporting unethical behavior and illegal activities at City Hall.
Santa Ana residents just came off a controversial recall of Republican Councilwoman Ceci Iglesias, who openly clashed with local police union officials over what she called unsustainable salary raises granted by the city council majority at the time.
The union mainly financed the recall efforts against her, following her vote against $25 million in police officer raises granted by union-backed council members last year. Serrano in the past denied funding the recall efforts over her opposition to the raises.
But since Iglesias’ vote, she and Serrano had publicly battled, with Iglesias last year voting against the police department budget and calling for a formal, civilian oversight board over the department. Iglesias lacked support on the council, which dismissed the idea in October.
Councilman Juan Villegas — who also publicly clashed with Serrano and opposed the $25 million raises last year — said at the time council members were a better fit to determine police accountability.
But council oversight doesn’t equal “public” oversight, local activists say.
“The status quo for allowing police to police themselves is not working,” said Carlos Perea, a police reform advocate and city commissioner in Santa Ana. “People are tired of the lip service from elected officials. The consensus is we need direct oversight from the community over the police department.”
“We need to have a commission that has subpoena powers.”
Santa Ana Councilman David Penaloza, who’s supported by the police union, said Monday that the community makes “valid points” when it comes to independent oversight, but said “why reinvent the wheel” when the resources for police oversight are “already there” — “we have a personnel board.”
He said establishing a citizen oversight board “makes the job of the elected official meaningless … it puts me at a spot where, am I not trusted to be able to make decisions and hold the police department accountable?”
Perea, citing a years-long troubled relationship between the police and Latinos and people of color in the city, said council oversight “has failed” — it “doesn’t work.” A 2019 report from the Urban Peace Institute, for example, described a systemic lack of trust by Santa Ana residents toward law enforcement based on interviews with residents.
Anaheim became the first city in the county to have a citizen oversight board on policing, after numerous police killings of Latinos prompted unrest and calls for reform.
While the commission doesn’t have subpoena power but does have a structure in place to try to access documents it needs for investigations or decision-making, Anaheim Councilman Jose Moreno said the panel isn’t entirely untouched by politics. The committee members — while they apply and are selected from a lotter — still report their findings on issues like police misconduct to the city manager.
“The city manager is the direct appointment of the City Council majority — so it’s not clear of politics,” he said, adding “we just saw recently in Anaheim that if a city manager did not tow the line, then they would be quickly removed with no consideration of cost or consequence.”
Moreno said he’s concerned that if the committee made a statement “that is not aligned with the mayor or the council majority, the city manager will feel a lot of pressure not to sunshine that.”
But Moreno said it’s a step in the right direction. “I think it’s extremely archaic at this point if you are a city and you do not have any sense of citizen or resident oversight or review of officer involved violence and officer involved shootings, and certainly officer involved deaths.”
Asked about a formal citizen oversight board countywide for Sheriff’s deputies, their union’s president Juan Viramontes pointed to the county’s Office of Independent Review.
That agency, set up by county supervisors after a jail beating death more than a decade ago has barely weathered controversies over its effectiveness in holding county officials accountable and calling out ethics problems in recent years.
Still, Viramontes over the phone Tuesday said “we don’t have control over what they write.”
Andrew Do after Tuesday supervisors’ meeting pointed reporters to the recent appointment of a director at the Office of Independent Review after a long vacancy as proof that there’s a new view toward police oversight.
“This murder was horrendous and unconscionable,” said Do, who was elected with significant support from the deputy sheriff union in 2016, during Tuesday’s county supervisors meeting. Do reflected on Floyd’s killing and law enforcement during his concluding board comments saying, “the biases are systematic, recurring and widespread.”
“We must ask ourselves, are we living up to our nation’s promises? In fits and starts, we have been moving as a nation toward great justice. But we have not arrived.”
“Are we turning a blind eye to a system that devalues the rights of the disfavored to perpetuate a system of social supremacy?” he asked.
Reform, he later added, “has to happen at the local level.”
Viramontes said deputies understand the focus.
“I understand there’s a lot of concern about how we do our job – part of that is maybe a bad on us, that we’re not educating our communities,” he said, adding that he agreed with Barnes that what happened in Minneapolis was “very, very bad.”
On police union spending, Viramontes said “obviously we see the value in retaining the officers we have right now … obviously the world is changing and it’s constantly evolving. You have to evolve with it. Part of that is educating everybody on what we do and don’t do, to help them understand why we need to be compensated for certain things.”
Last year, county supervisors moved millions from other departments like mental health services to close a spending gap at the Sheriff’s department caused by cost overruns, which came from personnel costs.
Public Safety Spending
When protests heightened on Saturday in Santa Ana, city officials largely condemned looters and separated them from the core issues motivating the protests.
Yet local activists challenged officials in cities like Santa Ana to ask themselves why the nationwide issues struck such a chord among young people in their communities, and to look at the systemic youth environment and police relations issues in play.
Much of those issues, activists say, stem from cities’ prioritization of police spending in their budgets over other areas like parks, libraries and youth programs, which they argue also constitute public safety.
In OC cities like Santa Ana, Anaheim, and Westminster — which has been weathering numerous police corruption lawsuits over the past several years — the lion’s share of their hundred-million-dollar spending budgets have gone to police.
Most recently, an iteration of Santa Ana’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year at one point proposed millions in spending increases on policing — largely accounting for officers’ raises — while the city was still grappling with its losses due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
After protesters on Saturday threw projectiles and launched fireworks at riot police — who in turn fired tear gas canisters and rubber bullets — Resilience OC director Roberto Herrera said that while “folks shouldn’t resort to violence,” young people’s behavior has been “decades in the making, in lack of investment by the city into the youth, parks and libraries.”
“What did elected officials expect was going to happen?” Perea said, adding that as cities this month smooth out their city budgets, police spending will put youth programs, parks and other aspects that could be considered part of public safety “on the chopping block.”
While Santa Ana Councilman Jose Solorio said the current situation will “require that police departments evaluate their use of force policy, monitor the use of force stats and trends at their agency,” he pushed back on reducing funding from the police department.
“Police work and spending are super important. I don’t think the City Council should delegate it to another group,” he said. He joined in other officials’ condemnations of Saturday’s looters.
In Garden Grove, Councilwoman Kim Nguyen’s district has been marked by key discussions around youth environments like a lack of open park space and the Townsend gang injunction. In a Tuesday phone interview she encouraged officials grappling with the recent protests in Orange County to not make it “about the looting and rioting and instead focus on why that’s happening — it’s a symptom of injustice that’s been going on for a long time.”
There are mounting questions for local officials over how far they will now go to prove solidarity on the issue as well as pursuing greater accountability for their local law enforcement agencies.
As protests continued throughout Sunday, Brewer won praise on social media with announcements she made that all candidates would have to cosign the Black Lives Matter movement to get an OCYD party endorsement and commit to facilitating community roundtables with law enforcement.
In a phone interview she criticized local elected officials for being “washy” in their solidarity and “saying all of the right things” with no “actionable” commitments.
“Am I hopeful that after a community like OC that has a history of police violence and now has a light on it after events of the last few days will start to see systemic changes?” Brewer asked herself during the phone interview Monday. “Unfortunately, as the reality exists right now with the political landscape and a lack of police oversight in the county, the answer to me sounds like it’s no.”
Perea in a previous interview said the county and its cities that skew public safety to law enforcement has made it clear: they are “at war with young people.”
“The question for local elected officials in OC,” Perea said, “is going to be: are they going to have the courage and be bold to ensure there is meaningful systematic change in City Hall, wherever they are?”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @photherecord.