A Santa Ana Police officer pleaded guilty in court last month to a federal bribery charge, as authorities say he took cash from an unnamed crime figure seeking to protect his illegal business activities from the cops.
Now some are wondering why officer Steven Lopez, 29, is still getting paid while on administrative leave from the police department — even amidst his Feb. 24 guilty plea and a series of public statements strongly denouncing his actions by top city officials a few months ago.
It stems from procedural rules around officers suspected of committing wrongdoing or violating police department policy while wearing the badge. When police officers in California are investigated by their own departments for such policy violations, they’re typically put on paid administrative leave.
Santa Ana police officials announced they launched an Internal Affairs investigation into Lopez after federal authorities announced Lopez’s plea agreement last year.
Santa Ana Police Cpl. Anthony Bertagna, the department spokesman, said Lopez remains on paid leave.
Bertagna declined to say much when asked for comment about Lopez’s pay on Tuesday, beyond: “By state law he (Lopez) is provided due process with regards to his employment. That process is now underway.”
Lopez is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court on May 3.
He could face a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
The questions over the mechanisms allowing for Lopez’s continued pay come in a city that has long faced scrutiny over — and has publicly debated — its practice of prioritizing police in its spending of taxpayer dollars every year, often miles above other areas like parks and libraries.
Resident and local activist Bulmaro “Boomer” Vicente — who, along with other activists, has vocally protested law enforcement’s priority in the city budgets — called Lopez’s continued pay “absurd.”
“We have local small businesses and residents struggling amidst the pandemic, but yet this officer who pleaded guilty to a federal charge is still getting money in his pocket,” Vicente, a member of nonprofit group Chispa, said to Voice of OC after calling out the situation in a public Twitter thread.
While Santa Ana resident and activist Carlos Perea said administrative leave policies are routine for officers being investigated, he called this instance “a waste of taxpayer money.”
“It’s unfair to residents of the city — especially in a pandemic where the city and residents continue to face financial questions and challenges — to be paying for someone that committed a crime,” said Perea, who sits on a city oversight committee tracking the city’s use of increased sales tax money.
“It’s another reason why we need to have the City of Santa Ana implement police oversight with meaningful powers,” Perea said.
“SAPD’s internal affairs process and current system of accountability isn’t working because these types of officers are still here.”
Vicente said he’s “curious to know how much money he’s made since he’s been on paid leave.”
Voice of OC has submitted a Public Records Act request seeking information on how much money it has cost the city to pay police department employees on administrative leave over the last several years.
Mayor Vicente Sarmiento, who became more vocal about police spending during the 2020 City Council elections, told Voice of OC last month that he’s “glad that this bad actor has been caught and punished.”
Asked about Lopez’s paid leave, Sarmiento declined to comment, saying he can’t respond as “it’s a personnel matter.”
Sarmiento said “this is not the norm at the Santa Ana Police Department, but the exception.”
“The vast majority of our officers are upstanding law enforcement officials who uphold and enforce the law with integrity and dedication while putting their lives on the line every day to protect our community,” he added.
Federal authorities say Lopez, who was investigated by the FBI, admitted he agreed to stop compliance checks and police searches and seizures at illegal businesses under an unnamed crime figure’s control — and that he took cash bribes amounting to around $128,000.
Lopez served as a Santa Ana police officer from April 2016 to November last year. He had been receiving bribe money as early as August of 2019, authorities said.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @photherecord.