Santa Ana Council Increases Police Spending but Reallocates Some Money After Protests

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Activists stand outside Santa Ana City Hall while council members inside took a first reading of the city budget on June 18, 2020.

Santa Ana City Council members in a near-unanimous vote of the majority Democrat panel approved a budget Tuesday night that increases police spending by nearly $3 million, though it’s a smaller increase than the $9 million originally proposed after city officials faced intense public scrutiny over law enforcement’s year-after-year priority in the city budget.

Council members in a 6-1 vote — with Councilman Vicente Sarmiento opposed — approved a budget during a meeting marked by hours of public commenters who called for no police spending increases at all, if not a total defunding of the department in the wake of national and local protests against police violence and law enforcement’s role in public safety.

With more than $2.3 million conceded by the city’s police union members who were set to receive an incremental pay raise this month, as well as the shuffling of services like animal control and crossing guards out of the police department and into other departments, city officials reduced their police spending increase by $6.3 million.

Additionally, included in the council’s vote was Councilman Phil Bacerra’s suggestion to reallocate $500,000 in police overtime spending to the city’s sidewalk improvements program. 

“We’re looking at our police department only having a 2% increase. Looking at what we initially proposed, that’s remarkable,” Bacerra said before the vote.

Yet dozens of public commenters who spoke in person during the meeting wanted no spending increases at all — arguing instead for the reallocation of police dollars into youth services, parks and libraries. 

“We all have a role to play, don’t we?” said resident Monica Mouet. “I know what role SAPD has played throughout the years — one that dismantles the safety and wellbeing of the public.”

By approving the spending increases — albeit reduced — Mouet said the council members’ Democrat majority move  “shows me that most of you are more fearful of ruffling feathers than the safety of your community.”

“Santa Ana City Council, what role do you have to play as this colossal pain spreads with no end in sight?” Mouet asked.  “With this increase you are not serving the people or protecting them; at this point you are either with us or in the way.”

Many speakers, through tears, angrily recounted tales of their families disrupted by Santa Ana police – then turned the focus of their rage on council members inside the chambers.

One speaker who identified herself only as Soledad raised her voice when talking about the council’s willingness to hear residents’ concerns about law enforcement, and whose phone calls council members are more willing to pick up.

Ring ring,” she wailed, “I am the call you do not take.”

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Santa Ana City Hall June 18, 2020.

Before the vote, council members like Nelida Mendoza pushed back on any calls to defund the police or reallocate spending. 

“It makes no sense to defund the police,” Mendoza said, pointing to an example in Camden, New Jersey where city officials disbanded their police department several years ago and restructured it. While reported crimes fell over time, local activists were still unhappy about the fact that policing hadn’t changed and the department consisted of out-of-towners and mostly white officers.

Mendoza also lauded the police union for going along with the labor concessions, saying it “shows the Police Officers Association is working in collaboration with what our public is asking for.”

She was elected to her seat in May following the recall of former councilwoman Ceci Iglesias — who had publicly battled with the police union’s president Gerry Serrano over enhanced police salaries granted last year — following a recall campaign that was funded mainly by the police union. 

“We cannot do away with our police department,” Mendoza said, adding it “makes sense to continue providing excellent public safety.”

But the service has been far from excellent, according to public commenters heard on Tuesday, years of local activists’ complaints, and studies by local community groups that described a systemic lack of trust between law enforcement and Santa Ana residents.

When local activists marched in downtown Santa Ana hours before the council meeting, residents like Jackie Cordova decried the police that met marchers — “they come out in riot gear when we have something to say to them.”

Then another speaker who didn’t identify themselves urged council members “not to defund the police, but to abolish the whole system.”

“Accountability feels like an attack when you’re not ready to acknowledge how your behavior harms others,” the speaker added.

Despite demands by members of the public, council members didn’t vote to reallocate money from the police department specifically into youth programs or parks and libraries — areas that local activists and residents say does more for public safety in the long run than do police. Though Councilman Bacerra, who was once backed by the union, did suggest and vote on reallocating $500,000 in overtime from the police department and into the public works department.

Council members like Jose Solorio — who’s backed by the police union and has also pushed back on any notion of reallocating police funding — reacted to the realignment of animal control and crossing guard services with a thumbs up. “Makes sense.”

He argued in favor of alternatives to defunding the police like “civilianizing” officers in the department —  “turning officers into Protective Service Officers” — as well as community surveys “on how we do on 9-1-1 responses” and an independent use of force study, which Solorio said “is something that ought to be done and contracted for.”

Solorio also pointed out that youth services will see more funding this year — largely due to the fact that city officials are carrying over $3.6 million in unspent youth services dollars from the current fiscal year into the next one. In total, next fiscal year will see a total $7 million for youth services. 

Still, it’s a relatively small slice of the budget compared to the $134 million the police department is set to receive, even with the realignments. 

Before his “No” vote on the budget, Sarmiento expressed disappointment at the year-over-year increases to police spending, specifically around field operations. 

“I saw that allocation for field operations over the last three years — in fiscal year 2017-2018 it was $52 million; 2018-2019 it was $53 million; 2019-2020 it was $53 as well; this year we’re going to $57 million,” he said. “To the extent we can narrow police functions to core police functions, it keeps not just the public safe but police officers safe as well.”

Situations like dealing with homeless individuals, he said, “I don’t philosophically feel that is a core police function.”

But Sarmiento lauded the police budget realignments and praised efforts by the police department he said were working to rebuild trust with the community. 

For instance, “the fact we introduced de-escalation training to an extent it is a very important part of the training for our officers, is very impressive,” he said.

Responding to local activists’ calls to restore funding to the city’s immigrant deportation defense fund, which was set to receive $100,000 less than what the fund got last year, council members also included in their vote that additional $100,000 for the defense fund, possibly coming from the city’s youth services money.

Meanwhile staff during the meeting unveiled the city’s proposed spending plan for $28.6 million the city received in state assistance dollars to respond to the local COVID-19 pandemic. 

As part of the proposed plan, $8 million would go toward a contract with the University of California, Irvine for modeling, serology (antibody) testing, consulting and education. 

Around $3 million would go to rental assistance for renters hit financially by the pandemic and the same amount would also go toward small business grants; $2 million would go to households having difficulty paying utility bills; $6.3 million would go to high risk resident testing & medical services via community clinics; and $700,000 would go toward isolation & housing assistance for COVID-19 positive people, among other allocations.

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.