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After years of being seen as a powerful and unified political powerhouse, cracks are emerging at the top of Santa Ana’s police union.
The latest sign comes in an explosive resignation email from its vice president, Jim Armstrong, who had this to say to union President Gerry Serrano:
“You have turned our union into a subtle dictatorship,” wrote Armstrong, a property crimes detective at the police department. He then forwarded his resignation message to top police officials.
“The [union] and its board members once stood as a collective group of individuals from many facets, with many different points of view, which made [us] so strong as a union,” he added.
“And while board member diversity is still presently intact, individual points of view that don’t align with yours are disregarded and those individuals singled out.”
Serrano declined to comment on the resignation email when reached by phone Monday.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said of the email, which was addressed to him. When a reporter started describing the email, Serrano ended the phone call.
The detective wrote that he caught Serrano, who’s considered one the most powerful people at City Hall, lying to him about “two very serious issues.”
“I lost respect and trust in you when you lied to me about two very serious issues (that would affect the overall membership) we discussed at length on multiple occasions,” Armstrong wrote, adding another board member was present for two of those discussions.
Armstrong didn’t say what Serrano allegedly lied about, and didn’t return a phone message asking what the alleged lies were.
“If you remember all those years ago when the original [executive board of the union] got together, we promised to hold each other to the highest standards of integrity and respect,” Armstrong wrote.
“Sadly, you’ve forgotten that.”
Voice of OC learned of the resignation letter and later obtained it through a public records request. Read it here.
“I believe in Karma Gerry and I hope when you get yours, nothing serious happens and you only lose your arrogance and malicious attitude/actions,” Armstrong wrote at the end of his letter.
The Santa Ana Police Officers Association – often called “POA” – is widely viewed as one of the most powerful political forces in Santa Ana, with their huge scale of campaign support making or breaking some candidates and officials’ fortunes.
Among the most vivid examples came last year, when the union funded a successful recall of their most vocal City Council critic, Ceci Iglesias, who had voted against a $25 million police officers raise the Council approved without funding.
Serrano ascended the union’s ranks to president in 2016.
Since then, the interest group has emerged as a powerful and aggressive player in citywide elections — spending heavily on select City Council candidates to outcomes such as the enhanced police salary raises and, a year later, the recall of Iglesias who opposed them.
This isn’t the first time Serrano’s leadership and tactics have been called into question, either by elected officials or members of the police department.
Most recently, federal authorities have been looking into the police union, issuing subpoenas related to Serrano. The nature of the investigation and the subpoenas’ roles in them have not been disclosed, though Serrano has dismissed them as baseless probes brought on by his enemies.
Santa Ana’s current police chief, David Valentin, has raised questions about whether Serrano took excessive cash-outs for unused time off from City Hall.
Armstrong, in his resignation letter, criticized Serrano as undermining Valentin’s leadership.
“Another serious concern which I have tried to repair on many occasions over the years is that you have disrespected and alienated our Chief,” Armstrong wrote.
“Disagreeing with the Chief on work related issues is part of the job but being in continual conflict with HIM is catastrophic for the membership.”
Armstrong added: “You continue to foster this environment with the Chief and is it effecting the good order and morale of our membership.”
Two officials have alleged in sworn testimony that Serrano told City Council candidates in 2016 they had to agree to fire then-Police Chief Carlos Rojas in order to benefit from $400,000 in campaign spending by the union. Serrano has disputed those allegations.
Rojas filed a lawsuit alleging the union’s efforts to oust him came largely because he disciplined Serrano after he was arrested in 2011 by police in nearby Westminster for an alleged DUI hit-and-run.
Westminster police found Serrano had driven under the influence of alcohol when he crashed into another car in 2011 and fled the scene. Officers arrested Serrano for DUI, and he later refused blood and breath tests before the department cited him for DUI and recommended two misdemeanor charges, according to the report.
The police reports said Serrano was slurring speech after the crash and told investigating officers they were “sick,” “pathetic,” and had “better not come to Santa Ana.” He also tried to “chest bump” an arresting officer after he arrived at the jail, according to the reports.
Serrano has declined to comment on the Westminster incident, except to say it was “a non-injury traffic accident, and it was determined I did not break the law…My record is clean.”
Then-District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ office did not file charges against Serrano, citing the lack of a blood test, though DA records later showed the DA’s office routinely files such DUI refusal cases against other people, including eight during the month Serrano was arrested and more than 2,000 cases total since 2011.
Serrano later posed in his sergeant’s uniform alongside Rackauckas for campaign ads for the DA’s 2018 re-election.
In his union president role, Serrano gets to keep his police sergeant title and salary, with a 30 percent-plus bonus pay, without having any official department work duties.
In recent months he’s been trying to get the city to create a liaison job for him so he can secure stronger pension benefits with the state, according to city records.
Those records, in which he repeatedly emails City Manager Kristine Ridge urging her to find him employment at City Hall, were requested and obtained by Voice of OC through the Public Records Act. Read the records, which City Hall has redacted in some areas, here.
On his way out the door, Armstrong said he’s “seen it all” – including Serrano deceiving his fellow board members and the police officers the union represents.
“I’ve been around a long time Gerry and know a lot about what you are doing behind closed doors. You can fool a lot of your board members and the general membership but you can’t fool me.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.