Santa Ana officials could make a million-dollar shift in police spending priorities next week, moving resources within the police department to enhance focus on sexual assault response, for example, and sensitivity to crime survivors who are young or LGBTQ+.

The City Council is scheduled to vote on the proposed spending shift at their upcoming Tuesday meeting. For more information about how to attend and access it, click here.

Mayor Vicente Sarmiento calls it one piece of a “comprehensive” effort to respond to a longstanding and systemic public safety crisis in Santa Ana — one dogged by distrust in police, outsized city spending of tax dollars on law enforcement, and environments that neglect youth. 

“It’s significant to see the redirection of police funding in favor of crime prevention and dealing with trauma, as well as problems that youth in the city face — this really is a departure from anything I’ve seen from my 14 years on the council,” he said in a Friday interview.

Young activists in the city like Bulmaro “Boomer” Vicente cast doubt on whether the proposed change will drive any real shift in Santa Ana’s public safety approach: “Looking at the report, I see it’s a lot of transferring of officers from one unit to another, which is unfortunate.”

Vicente, an organizer with local community organizing venue Chispa, said the money shouldn’t be going into the department at all: 

“I believe we should allocate more resources towards (the) issue of sex crimes, LGTBQ community issues, youth engagement, but to programs that aren’t divisions within the police department.”

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City Hall still gives law enforcement an outsized share of public resources, a tradition that continued in June when council members voted in a budget which swelled police spending to $141 million in taxpayer money, compared to the prior fiscal year’s adopted $134 million.

Officials at the time argued they weren’t spending on any new police services in the city budget, rather the police spending increase accounted for an increase in costs for existing services.

Part of that budget vote, however, included direction to city staff to come back to the council with this very reallocation proposal.

If approved on Tuesday, the new spending plan would move $1 million in funding away from the Metropolitan Division, which consists of the Gang Unit and a strike force known as the Major Enforcement Team (MET) Unit.

The funding would go right back into the department, but for other initiatives like trauma-informed care training, sexual assault response, and investigating human trafficking.

Police department spokesperson and Cpl. Sonia Rojo didn’t respond to requests for comment Friday.

City staff in a report attached to Tuesday’s meeting agenda say they would transfer one officer from the metro division to the Field Operations Division to assist with youth community engagement efforts, and “provide additional capacity” to the Police Athletic and Activity League (PAAL) program, which is a youth-cop mentorship program through fitness and sports activities.

Officials would transfer one Police Investigative Specialist (PIS) from the metro division to focus on sex crimes affecting “vulnerable members of our community, including LGBTQ+ victims.” 

The specialist would also help develop training for victim support among the LGBTQ+ population and implement “a Trauma Informed Care platform that will be developed by

the Training Division,” according to the staff report. A police officer would also be reassigned to develop de-escalation training, sensitivity training, and trauma informed care training.

Officials would transfer around $94,000 in overtime funding from the Metropolitan Division to the Criminal Investigations Division — in part to reduce caseloads, and enhance services for victims of sexual assault through trauma informed care, according to the staff report.

To see a full list of what officials say would change within the department, click here.

The department, during the budget cycle earlier this year, came under scrutiny by council members like Jessie Lopez over its existing system for dealing with and prioritizing certain sexual assault reports.

Read: Santa Ana Police Questioned About Why Some Sexual Assault Reports Receive Same Urgency as Graffiti

Sarmiento says he sees the new attention on sex crimes as a response to that scrutiny, and that “what’s significant here is these moneys aren’t being removed from the Police Dept., they’re being implemented by the Police Dept.”

“I think to address issues the council saw as important in respect to youth investment, youth support and crime reduction — the benefit is that when it’s done by police themselves, there’s that opportunity to improve trust,” Sarmiento said. “It’s significant we’re able to make this pivot.”

Vicente, by contrast, says members of the communities the police department could pivot its focus to “may not feel comfortable expressing and having their issues dealt directly with the police.” 

There are existing programs, Vicente said, like UnderGround Grit, Neutral Ground and Project Kinship which were created by local community groups and “work with system impacted youth and do violent intervention work, with a restorative justice approach.”

“Programs that address the underlying needs of our young people and most vulnerable communities is what’s needed. Most importantly, these communities should be a part of these conversations to figure out what resources and funding is needed to support them,” he added.

Activists in the city have also pointed to service areas within City Hall that could gain from more resources instead — parks, libraries and youth services outside of law enforcement that they say, with enough investment, could address the city’s public safety crisis to equal effect without putting more money toward police.

Last November, some Santa Ana residents saw hope for a citywide funding shift from three people who gained new seats on the City Council — people who seemed to reflect activists’ calls for an end to officials’ years-long tradition of giving most taxpayer dollars to police.

That didn’t happen this year, when it came time for those council members — Jessie Lopez, Johnathan Ryan Hernandez, and Mayor Vicente Sarmiento — to vote on Santa Ana’s first new budget since their election.

No radical reinvestment or realignment of the budget was made. In fact, the police department’s budget grew over increased costs for existing services, which the council signed off on.

Yet Sarmiento says change is indeed happening — that the city has begun moving in a new direction, with officials currently exploring whether to spend more cannabis sales tax money on youth services rather than enforcement of citywide pot shop laws and regulations.

He said the city’s also mulling over diverting non-emergency, homeless and mental health-related calls for service away from police and instead having nonprofits such as Be Well OC respond to them instead — a move that would join a countywide trend of cities making this change.

Yet Sarmiento said the proposal up for approval Tuesday doesn’t take any money away from the police department.

“At some point there needs to be some bridge or relationship established between the police department and our young people so we don’t have that mistrust, suspicion and bad faith toward one another,” he said, adding: 

“There are several other ways to tackle this, in addition to what we’re doing with his $1 million.”

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