We have been your lifeline during the pandemic, economic fallout, wildfires, protests and the election. Support us with a tax-deductible donation.

Santa Ana officials on Tuesday will again look at the possibility of a police oversight commission, a formal body that’s been requested repeatedly by residents and local activists concerned about poor police relations in the community and the local police union’s power in city politics.

The discussion comes in the wake of national and local protests over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, which has in turn driven newfound public pressure on local officials to look at law enforcement’s role in politics and public safety.

The idea has been struck down twice before on the City Council. Most recently, former Councilwoman Ceci Iglesias tried and failed last October to get support for a police oversight board in the midst of a public political battle at the time with the police union’s president, Gerry Serrano. Iglesias was recently unseated through a recall campaign financed mainly by the union, and has been replaced by sitting Councilwoman Nelida Mendoza.

Back in 2017, a group of council members also tried and failed to get the idea to stick. Of those council members, Vicente Sarmiento is the only one still on the dais.

Now council members Sarmiento, Phil Bacerra and David Penaloza — three officials who are, or at one point were, backed by the union — are again requesting the discussion for Tuesday’s teleconference City Council meeting, where officials are also slated to approve concessions by the police union on pay raises granted last year as the city reckons with the COVID-19 pandemic’s hits to its finances. 

Police officers, per the salary increase contract granted by council members in February last year, were supposed to get a 4% raise — one of many incremental raises over three years — on July 1. According to renegotiations between the union and city staff, that raise drops down to 2% and will be deferred to January of next year. Staff anticipate savings of more than $2.3 million for the city.

At the same meeting, council members will also conduct a first reading of the city’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year, as local activists and community leaders are calling on them to take another look at police’s role in public safety and whether the city should keep spending the largest segment of its budget on the department.

“The proposal with regards to a police oversight commission that I agendized is something I think should not be seen as just a knee-jerk reaction, but … could be something that actually benefits the community, and how it provides feedback to police and helping police fine tune their services,” Bacerra said in a telephone interview.

Sarmiento recalled back to 2017, and said his logic at the time for proposing such an oversight body was “that we have resident commissions for parks, arts, culture and historic resources but yet we don’t have any community participation on public safety even though we spend close to 75% of our unrestricted general funds in this issue area.”

Added Bacerra: “I think this could be a real good opportunity — what I agendized is an item that asks staff to research the latest and greatest information on best practices for some sort of oversight body, on how it’s composed, what are the roles and responsibilities of commissioners, what kind of resources do we need to commit to this sort of thing.”

Penaloza didn’t return requests for comment.

Council members like Juan Villegas and Miguel Pulido have in the past reasoned that there isn’t a need for a police oversight commission, citing the council’s decision making powers over personnel issues like police misconduct. However, at the council’s last meeting on June 2, Villegas mentioned the possibility of a “chief’s advisory board.”

Protestors take a kneel in the middle of an intersection in down-town Santa Ana on June 8, 2020. Credit: JESSICA JENKINS, Voice of OC

There will be questions about how powerful and effective the commission will be — if there’s enough support for it. Civil rights leaders and local activists have in the past expressed the need for any such commission to have subpoena powers for certain documents and files, as well as independent investigative authority.

Anaheim is the only Orange County city with such a commission in place, and it took months of unrest in the city over a string of police killings of Latinos in 2012 to get the the concept going — which started out as a public safety board but eventually morphed into a beefed-up police oversight body. Still, this year, Anaheim Councilman Jose Moreno in a previous interview said the commission isn’t entirely untouched by politics.

The committee members — while they apply and are selected from a lottery — 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.”

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.

Have an opinion on this story? Join the conversation… In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join the open conversation on our Facebook page. Message us via our website form or staff page. Send us a secure news tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.