It has cost Santa Ana roughly $24 million out of the public purse to settle legal claims and lawsuits against the police department over the last decade, according to official data obtained by Voice of OC.

The disclosure from City Hall comes as a more left-leaning City Council takes root this year, and raises ire among activists who have been seeking redirection of public dollars away from police and into other community and youth programs.

The $24 million figure consists of police department legal payouts for bodily injury, personal injury, property damage, and employer liability cases — and only accounts for those that have so far been settled, according to officials.

The information comes from the city’s finance department, an internal response to questions from an oversight committee tracking City Hall’s use of dollars from an increased sales tax on residents — much of which currently goes to police officer salaries.

Voice of OC later obtained that same data breakdown in an email.

It spans the years 2011 to Oct. 31 of this year, and includes costs for outside attorneys’ fees, but not those for cases handled by in-house legal counsel.

Some of those legal payments could pertain to incidents and cases that opened in the years prior to 2011 but were settled within the time frame of the data.

The money spent on the department’s legal issues comes out of the city’s general fund, which is raised through taxes on residents.

The Voice of OC has requested the same figures over the same time span for other Orange County cities like Anaheim, Costa Mesa, and Huntington Beach to get a comparison.

Much larger U.S. towns like New York City are known to fork over hundreds of millions in a single year to settle cases of roughly the same nature.

Santa Ana’s settlement figures are just a fraction of the amount of money officials this year dedicated to the department’s spending budget: Nearly $134 million.

Police Chief David Valentin referred questions about the city’s legal spending to the City Attorney’s office. He declined requests for an interview about department operations and recent crime trends until next year, citing his schedule.

Community leaders and activists say the last decade’s police legal costs are an affront to their years-long requests for that money to go toward areas like youth services, parks and libraries — other facets of public safety they argue could reduce crime long term.

Instead, they say, officials have for years dedicated the majority of public resources to effectuate what they argue has become something of an over-policed state.

“It’s clear we are not making calculated decisions about taxpayer money and instead burning our resources while children are being brutalized in underfunded communities,” new council member and progressive activist Johnathan Hernandez said in an interview two days before he was sworn in on Tuesday.

He added: “We’re spending more money on lawsuits than we are on an additional park or community center which could potentially save hundreds of kids in this community.”

Councilman Jose Solorio, on the other hand, said much has changed over the last ten years, and that since the implementation of policies like body worn cameras, he argues the department may be reducing its legal liability.

From January to October this year, the police department handled 150,838 calls for service citywide.

Of those calls, the department received 35 public complaints against officers. Thus, alleged officer misconduct comprises a very small fraction of total calls for service this year so far, the department asserts in its most recent misconduct data report.

“Really, over the past four years, I can’t think of many major incidents under our watch that had a major price tag on policing,” Solorio said.

The city’s disclosure of police legal settlement costs showed that the year 2017 saw nearly $7.8 million spent. That was the largest amount of any year between 2011 and 2020, according to the spending data. However, that could account for incidents from years prior whose cases were settled in 2017.

While the new council members elected this year have voiced support for investing more money in other community programs, Solorio rejected the idea that there’s a broad community interest in taking money away from law enforcement.

“I’m not so sure that many of the new council members won in November with a strong majority, because there was a large pool of candidates, so it wasn’t like any candidates who won with 60% of the vote,” he said. “That’s where I make my basis for saying that the broad electorate isn’t as clear cut on that issue.”

New Councilwoman Thai Viet Phan said the last decade’s legal costs make a strong case for a much-anticipated police oversight commission in the city, something the current City Council has directed city staff to research and study.

“I’d really like to see the data and cases tied to that ($24 million) amount,” she said in an interview. “As we have seen throughout the country, a lot of settlements relate to police conduct.”

She continued: “That’s part of why I’d like to see an oversight commission. Better transparency, investigations of alleged misconduct separate from something internal, or a separate department that could be better oversight to help prevent things like this from happening.”

Hernandez said he’s confident the new council will have the votes to get a substantial oversight commission going, but that he’ll push for it to be “justice-impacted.”

What does that mean? People sitting on those committees could be people who have been in and out of the jail system, people who’ve been arrested, he explained.

“Incoming council members will have had firsthand experience knowing people affected by the criminal justice system,” he said. “All of these things could reshape Santa Ana, and I hope my colleagues will recognize our residents deserve something different.”

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

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