Santa Ana Council Reels from Protests and Hears New Calls for Police Review, Different Spending

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The Santa Ana City Hall on May 18, 2020.

More than 200 hundred public comments and a dozen callers into Tuesday night’s Santa Ana City Council meeting denounced a proposed $13.5 million increase in public safety spending — largely composed of raises and other cost increases in the police department, which gets the largest share of the city’s spending budget.

Public speakers were unanimous in their calls for council members to move money away from the police department and reinvest in youth programs, parks and other community-centered areas, during a discussion on the city budget that came on the heels of numerous protests in Orange County advocating police accountability and systemic reforms.

At their Tuesday teleconference meeting, council members also began to think out loud about a form of police oversight like a police chief’s advisory board — as opposed to a formal, civilian oversight commission with investigative powers that many people that night were calling for.

“The (police) chief is open to having a chief’s advisory board,” said Councilman Juan Villegas during the meeting, though he added that discussion will have to come “later.”

Still, Councilman David Penaloza joined him in mulling it over. “In regards to the commission – I’m supportive of having that conversation.”

Council members last year dismissed the idea of a formal citizens’ review board, brought up by former councilwoman Ceci Iglesias who was unseated this month by a union-backed recall effort and replaced by Nelida Mendoza, who was installed as councilwoman Tuesday

Villegas and Finance Director Kathryn Downs said part of that increase accounts for a portion of police officer pay raises that were approved by the council last year and have already been processed.

Council members like Penaloza and Mendoza reiterated past remarks by council members like Phil Bacerra and Mayor Miguel Pulido that salary and benefits renegotiations would have to be considered for all of the city’s employee unions, including the police union.

The increases to public safety spending come as the city estimates millions of dollars in financial losses from the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

Resident Indigo Vu said part of the solution to the city’s fiscal injury “is simple: defund the police department.”

Vu encouraged diverting funding away from police and putting the money into long term public safety strategies like increases to youth programs, parks and library spending. “When people’s basic needs are met, crime goes down.”

Hector Bustos said residents have long been asking council members to implement a public oversight commission for police. “We are no longer asking you — we are demanding.” 

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

The crowd on the corner of Broadway and Fourth St. in Santa Ana on May 31, 2020.

“Our police officers need to be held accountable for their actions,” Bustos said, calling the proposed budget in its current iteration “not reflective” of the community’s needs.

On the other hand, there were some portions of the budget’s current iteration that residents were supportive of, like funding allocations for a deportation defense fund for the city’s large undocumented immigrant community. 

“Such funding ensures that vulnerable neighbors are not left behind when support is needed the

Most,” read a letter from Katherine Traverso of the Vera Institute of Justice, calling for an increased allocation of $200,000 versus the $100,000 currently set for it in the proposed budget.

Councilman Vicente Sarmiento after hearing the public comments asked staff to see if some elements of residents’ demands around police and youth spending would be incorporated into the budget, arguing the city needs “to reinvest in our youth, especially in light of what’s happening throughout the country.”

“We’re experiencing incredible despair – we saw it in our city. We have to acknowledge it. It’s real, not made up,” he said, adding he would be interested in ways of marrying issues around youth initiatives with police initiatives. “I’ve been on this council close to 14 years … the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result – let’s be creative.”

Hairo Cortes, executive director of Chispa OC, said programs like libraries and youth services “do far more for public safety than policing and enforcement ever has.”

The council on Tuesday got a debrief on the protests from Police Chief David Valentin, who denounced the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, which prompted the nationwide protests and the demonstrations in Orange County. 

“We do not condone what we saw occur in Minneapolis – it is not within the law, not within contemporary policing practices and use of force,” Valentin said during the meeting. “We take what occurred and led up to the death of George Floyd very seriously and I want to be on the record … to reassure the public that we stand very firm with the community that is upset by this, as they should be.” 

Still, Valentin described the protests in central Santa Ana on Saturday as “one of the most aggressive and violent incidents we’ve had in this city.”

Officers and Sheriff’s deputies in riot gear that night shot rubber bullets and tear gas canisters at a crowd of protesters on the intersection of Bristol St. and McFadden Ave, who advocated for police reforms with signs and chants while also lighting fireworks and launching projectiles.

For officers to come back to the station house that night with “cuts, bruises and scrapes – that’s part of this physical job,” Valentin said. “When you see burn marks, because of all the (projectile) fire they were taking, that’s a problem.”

Council members after the Saturday protest criticized looters and those participating in unlawful behavior — separating them from the core issues of the protest and questioning whether some of rioters were actual residents. 

Valentin on Tuesday said many of the people during the protests who “took advantage” of peaceful demonstrations were from out of town.

Local activists and organizers countered their criticisms by challenging them to think about why the national debate struck such a chord in Santa Ana where the protests heightened.

Cortes in a previous interview with Voice of OC said “this pent up frustration and the way this anger manifested itself – think about why the protest, why the murder of George Floyd resonated so much here?”

“We are talking about kids who are very familiar with police, are in frequent contact with police,” he said, “young people for whom the murder of George Floyd isn’t some abstract thing,” 

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.