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Hundreds of Orange County activists and organizers protesting police violence and racial injustice showed up at county supervisors’ doorstep Tuesday to decry the annual renewal of millions in sheriff contracts.

County supervisors ultimately approved all the contracts unanimously with no real debate or discussion about any of the terms or details. 

The morning turnout – which also drew counter-protesters – came largely out of efforts through social media by local Black organizers and activists and other members of the community, who for weeks said they planned on carrying energy over from a string of recent protests across Orange County into local public agency meetings.

While supervisors at the start of the meeting stood for the pledge of allegiance, frantic organizers live-streaming on social media said counter protesters were attempting to provoke people waiting outside to make their public comments, while Santa Ana police officers and Orange County Sheriff’s deputies stood nearby. 

Sheriffs stand guard at the entrance to the board of supervisors meeting on Jun. 23, 2020 in Santa Ana. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Toward the first half of the meeting, around 50 people spoke in public comment about Sheriff contracts, mostly half-and-half between calls to defund or reallocate police resources and recognize the Black Lives Matter movement versus calls by other speakers to leave law enforcement funding in place, if not enhance it. 

All those public comments came in reaction to annual contract renewals and amendments between the Orange County Sheriff’s Dept. and 13 cities across the county for law enforcement services — totaling more than $151 million this year — and approved by supervisors with little discussion beyond a few statements of praise for the Sheriff’s Dept. by supervisors like Michelle Steel. 

In the last four years, about half of the 13 cities that contract with the Sheriff’s Dept. — mostly south county cities — have seen their contract costs rise by more than 20 percent, according to county data.

City and sheriff officials attribute the increases mainly to salary and benefit raises approved by county supervisors, as well as extra staff and services some cities have added.

Dozens more speakers also made public comments at the end of the meeting, nearly all of them in support of defunding local law enforcement across the county in general. In almost every city in the county, police get the largest share of city spending.

Steel, hearing that dozens of people were in line to make public comments, limited everyone’s time to one minute.

One speaker, Sarah Bancroft, said police officers in Orange County “do not keep our community safe — instead they bring violence and escalate conflict in neighborhoods” and protects institutions that “maintain wealth and inequality in OC.”

Like many of the commenters, she said officials across the county supporting current funding structures in place for police are “complicit in the harm of structural racism to people of color and Black people … defund and dismantle the police force in OC.”

A scannable QR code is passed around by organizers. The QR code prompts a screen on mobile devices with information on the board of supervisors meeting, a list of demands, and talking points for anyone wishing to make a public comment. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

A host of people after her were in agreement, reasoning that reallocating resources from law enforcement to youth programs, libraries and other community service areas would create better environments for youth, prevent the need for police intervention, and bring crime down in the long run. 

Speakers like Dotty Hagmire, who identified herself as a registered nurse in San Clemente, argued in favor of the current funding in place for the Sheriff’s Dept.

She recalled her son going missing a few years ago, and said the Sheriff’s Dept. responded “in full force” and helped her find him, adding that deputies were “instrumental in helping many of my friends and many who are people of color — we all want the same things.”

“We want our community to be safe, and defunding the police is absolutely not the path for that,” Hagmire said.

And then there were speakers who not only argued to keep current law enforcement funding in place, but directed rage at protesters and the local Black Lives Matter movement. Speakers like Genevieve Peters raised their voice at the microphone, claiming “what we have right now is lawlessness.” 

The protests, marches, vigils, and sit-ins in Orange County over the last few weeks have largely remained peaceful. Still, Peters not only called for keeping police funding, but demanded additional funding for the Sheriff’s Dept. to “put these people in jail.” 

Other speakers, through tears, said police were needed “now more than ever” amid the scene of people outside — most of them people of color — carrying signs, chanting, and waiting to speak.

One person who spoke in support of Black Lives Matter finished her remarks by adding that “Black trans lives matter, Black women matter…” A voice from behind responded “All lives matter.”

The crowd peaked at 250 people outside the meeting, by Sheriff spokeswoman Carrie Braun’s estimate. While it later decreased in size, organizer Zoe-Raven Wianecki in a phone call outside the meeting said activists planned on staying for “a good minute” for the entirety of it. Plans to march around the block and draw on the pavement with chalk were still in place.

Protestors before public comment hold their signs in protest, on Jun. 23, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC
Protestors before public comment hold their signs in protest, on Jun. 23, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Yet once the bulk of the comments made at the meeting were done, supervisors like Michelle Steel and Lisa Bartlett spoke little to the demands made and instead praised the Sheriff’s Dept. 

“I’m very grateful for the Sheriff (Don Barnes) and his staff for working with these cities, and want to thank the Sheriff for his hard work in keeping OC safe,” Steel said.

Bartlett said that by the time the contracts reach the county, the amounts have already been agreed upon by the Sheriff’s Dept. and the cities. 

“I’m not sure all the speakers understand that individual cities work with the Sheriff and create their own budget or appropriate level of law enforcement for each city, and that is something they work through the Sheriff and work through city staff…” Bartlett said.

But speakers at the end of the meeting like Garden Grove resident Grace Mortero questioned whether the existing levels of law enforcement in the county were appropriate at all.

As local officials “continue to invest in police which leaves Black people vulnerable and our community no safer, it has become more than clear that a radical shift in our policing and public health must take place,” Mortero said.

“The police don’t make us feel safe, why?” said Senai Andai, a mechanical engineer who lives in Costa Mesa, who also called for a redirecting of funding away from police.

No supervisor talked at all about the details of any of the law enforcement contracts, crime trends, deployments or how the pension obligations and annual funding payments are shared between the county and cities. 

Supervisor Doug Chaffee, the only Democrat on the board, refrained from joining in criticisms of law enforcement after the last public comment portion. “Who do you call when you have a problem? You call the police,” he said. 

Chaffee did say there may need to be “some redirecting” of resources and responsibilities in areas like mental health in the future, “and I know the police would probably be relieved” to have some of those responsibilities placed elsewhere. 

Then he finished by saying, “I hear about Black lives mattering. Indeed they do. But blue lives too. In fact, all lives matter” a phrase that has become associated with criticisms of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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