The tragic Anaheim police killing of a Santa Ana Councilman’s cousin has these two neighboring Orange County cities weathering public outrage in very different ways.
Santa Ana officials are asking themselves hard questions in public.
Anaheim officials are not.
In Santa Ana, some City Council members moved to take the issue head on, moving the discussion of the Sept. 28 shooting death of 34-year-old Brandon Lopez to the front of their Tuesday meeting.
Lopez is the cousin of Santa Ana Councilmember Johnathan Ryan Hernandez, whose representative council district spans the area where his cousin was shot and killed.
That same night, Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu tried to silence any discussion on the issue after reading a written statement on the shooting.
In both cities, the Anaheim and Santa Ana police departments both face serious questions from varying top officials and residents about their judgement calls the night of Lopez’s killing.
Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento publicly questioned why Santa Ana police gave up their jurisdictional authority to a neighboring city’s police force, when Anaheim police shot and killed Brandon Lopez following a pursuit and hours-long standoff in Santa Ana on Sept. 28.
Lopez was suspected of armed robberies when Anaheim police spotted him and gave chase that day, leading authorities on a pursuit until his vehicle got stuck in a Santa Ana construction zone.
Sarmiento said Lopez “was not perfect, as all of us aren’t perfect.”
“That doesn’t mean though that he wasn’t entitled to his due process nor did he abdicate his civil rights. As with other police pursuits, this one should have ended with arrest, detention, but it shouldn’t have ended with murder.”Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento
Sarmiento also questioned why no mental health professionals were called to the scene, and why Anaheim police used a flashbang to get Lopez out of his car and then killed him in what he described as a “firing squad” manner.
“Why make a provocative decision to fire a flash grenade into a vehicle rather than simply wait? Why was there a forced evacuation of a vehicle? Why was that met with lethal force? It really does appear to be a firing squad,” Sarmiento said.
Lopez’s family members and Hernandez had the same questions Tuesday night.
“I grew up on a side of town where there were no support groups for what I’m going through today,” Hernandez said at the meeting. “I grew up on a side of town where my cousin’s kids had to go to school the next day (following the shooting). His sister had to go to work.”
Sarmiento also appeared to take issue with how Santa Ana police treated Lopez’s family on the scene of the standoff and killing that night: “My question to our department is how we treat family members who are present?”
“The family, just like other members of the public, are especially subject to trauma and will require attention, but at the very least require respect and dignity … they are going through a difficult moment,” he said.
Despite his anger, Hernandez praised some “good-hearted officers that truly do care about our community. I mean what are the chances we have a chief of police who grew up in this community? You don’t see that very often. There are good officers out here.”
“Unfortunately, many of them are singular in this broken system,” he said.
Sarmiento voiced similar thoughts, while Councilwoman Nelida Mendoza praised officers’ actions during Lopez’s pursuit late last week.
In Anaheim, the discussion played out much differently.
While Santa Ana Council members brought last week’s police shooting death of Lopez to the forefront of their Tuesday meeting, Anaheim Mayor Sidhu tried to cut off questions from his colleague on the issue.
Right before Anaheim’s regularly scheduled city manager update, Sidhu said nobody could ask questions about things that weren’t on the agenda or items City Manager Jim Vanderpool didn’t bring up.
“City Manager’s report is for the purpose of allowing the city manager to make some brief announcements about some items he would like to share with the council and the community. Under the Brown Act substantive discussions … are prohibited,” Sidhu said.
Councilman Jose Moreno pushed back against Sidhu’s move.
“You only violate the Brown Act if there’s a discussion,” Moreno said. “There’s no discussion, there’s simply questions that I’m asking or encouraging a communication to the council as a whole later.”
Sidhu and Moreno were the only two Anaheim council members to publicly speak about the shooting.
Moreno asked if there was going to be a public forum on the Lopez shooting death — something he said has been a standard practice in the past.
Vanderpool didn’t publicly say if there would be one.
But he said there wouldn’t be an official City Council discussion on the item.
“I also indicated to you in my email that I would not be bringing this onto the agenda,” Vanderpool said.
Moreno said he’s been hit with a flood of questions from residents about the shooting and asked if state investigators were looking at the issue.
City Attorney Rob Fabela immediately expressed concern.
“There’s a fine line that we might be getting into a discussion on a non-agenda item,” Fabela said.
Before Sidhu tried cutting off Moreno’s questioning, he read a brief written statement about the issue.
“Any loss of life involving police is tragic and this incident speaks to the difficulties our police officers face in keeping us safe,” Sidhu said, adding that he spoke with Hernandez to express his condolences.
“Last week I reached out to Santa Ana Mayor Sarmiento and said the same,” he said.
Just a week after the Anaheim SWAT team shot Lopez to death, Anaheim City Council members unanimously voted to enter into a $1.3 million one-year contract with Be Well OC for mental health services.
The Be Well program is intended to send mental health workers, instead of police officers, to situations where someone is experiencing a mental health crisis.
During council comments at the end of Anaheim’s meeting, Moreno expressed his condolences to the Lopez family and said he hopes the Be Well OC program will help prevent such deaths.
He also said investigators should look at the claims that Hernandez — a mental health worker — tried to help his cousin, but was refused access by Santa Ana police officers.
Moreno also pushed for specifics on why Anaheim SWAT members used a flashbang of sorts to get Lopez out of the car.
“Given that Mr. Brandon Lopez did not appear to be an imminent threat to the public, what was the intention behind smoking him out?,” he said. “Why was the decision made after hours of trying to negotiate with him that at 10 p.m. he needed to be smoked out.”
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.