A lingering question has circled the police killing of 34-year-old Brandon Lopez — the cousin of Santa Ana Councilman Johnathan Ryan Hernandez — who was chased by Anaheim officers through Santa Ana’s city limits in September and shot to death after barricading himself in his car:

Why did Santa Ana police relinquish tactical command over the scene, in their own city, to Anaheim police officers who later that night shot Lopez repeatedly, mistaking a water bottle in his hand for a gun as he ran away, after forcing him out of his car with a flashbang?

Santa Ana’s mayor publicly asked that question during an October council meeting days after the fatal Sept. 28 shooting. 

[Read: Two Cities Face Fallout From Police Killing of A Santa Ana Councilman’s Cousin]

So has the president of Santa Ana’s police union, Gerry Serrano, who appears to have added the issue to his long list of existing grievances and accusations against top City Hall management.

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A barrage of legal complaints against the city this year, under Serrano, has focused on officials like Police Chief David Valentin and City Manager Kristine Ridge. The city has refuted the veracity of such complaints, saying they’re unsubstantiated and it’s all part of Serrano’s pressure campaign to boost his pension. 

[Read: Santa Ana Officials: Police Union Boss Threatens to ‘Burn the Place Down’ to Boost His Pension]

Yet Serrano — in an October emailed letter to the city, released through a records request and first made public by freelance journalist Ben Camacho — appeared to raise the same concern that Mayor Vicente Sarmiento raised in public. 

Gerry Serrano at a Santa Ana City Council meeting on Feb. 5, 2019. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Specifically, “at some point during this incident, apparently, Chief Valentin called Anaheim Chief Jorge Cisneros and this critical incident was unexplainably & unjustly given to Anaheim PD,” Serrano wrote. 

Voice of OC sought comment from Valentin and the department on Tuesday but was told by a spokesperson that Valentin was out of the office. 

Santa Ana police gave command of the scene to Anaheim officers just after 9 p.m. that day, according to Anaheim Police Sgt. Jacob Gallacher, speaking in a video about the incident which the department posted to YouTube on Nov. 12. 

Serrano said the department under Valentin violated protocols laid out by the Orange County Chiefs of Police and Sheriff’s Association — which appears to be a regional law enforcement group but there’s little information about it online — and said Santa Ana police should have been the ones to initiate and conduct SWAT operations that night since it was their city. 

Those SWAT operations were instead conducted by Anaheim authorities, who fired a flashbang into Lopez’s car to force him out.

“These operations should not be initiated by an outside agency without prior approval from the agency with jurisdiction,” Serrano wrote, which accuses Valentin of failing “to protect our community and city by forfeiting and relinquishing a critical incident to an outside agency.”

He added: “Such negligence and failure to protect resulted in a tragic incident which possibly could have been avoided.”

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“I find it rather interesting to see that even police officers are able to recognize the mishaps,” said Lopez’s cousin and city council member Hernandez in a Tuesday phone interview, reacting to Serrano’s complaint. 

He added, “I find it interesting to see people (like Serrano) raising awareness of the fact that police aren’t supposed to kill people.”

Serrano didn’t respond to phone and email messages seeking comment.

Hernandez also said he was alarmed after doing internet searches of the individuals who killed his cousin and “learning about their past,” referring to a Los Angeles Times story that went into detail about those officers’ history of fatal shootings. 

The City of Santa Ana provided Voice of OC with an Oct. 28 emailed response to Serrano’s complaint from City Manager Kristine Ridge.

In it, Ridge told Serrano he had referenced “outdated policies and [made] foregone conclusions on a very tragic and complex incident.”  

The policies governing inter-city SWAT operations that Serrano had cited in his complaint, from the Orange County Chiefs’ of Police and Sheriff’s Association, were from 1991, according to the manual.

“Your request for an investigation is not necessary, as you are fully aware the incident is already being investigated by multiple agencies,” Ridge wrote. “Accordingly, the City will take no further action at this time pending the results of those external investigations.”

Among those investigations is one being conducted by Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office, in which the state Dept. of Justice’s Police Shooting Investigation Team for Southern California is probing the shooting under Assembly Bill 1506.

That law requires the Attorney General to look into police shootings that result in the death of an unarmed civilian. 

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Hernandez — who lives in and represents the council ward where the shooting took place — in the days following the incident said he had tried to inform officers on the scene that Lopez was having a mental health crisis. 

A Santa Ana police officer advised other officers on the scene that he spoke with an unnamed family member who told him that Lopez intended on “suicide by cop,” according to police audio tapes from the incident which were included in Anaheim’s YouTube video on the shooting.

The transfer of tactical command from one city to the other happened as Lopez sat barricaded in his car, which had become disabled in a construction zone off West Santa Ana Boulevard. 

Earlier in the day, Lopez led police on a 35-minute high-speed car chase through the cities of Tustin, Irvine, and Santa Ana. Police said Lopez was suspected of car theft and had several active warrants for his arrest over armed robberies, domestic violence, and driving on a suspended license. 

For hours, Santa Ana police officers and negotiators attempted to get Lopez to exit the vehicle, said Gallacher in the Anaheim police video. “During that time he repeatedly refused all commands to exit the vehicle.”

“After nearly four hours of failed negotiation attempts and noncompliance from Mr. Lopez,” Gallacher in the video said the decision was made to fire a chemical agent into the vehicle. 

Just after Lopez left the vehicle, he began to flee with a black object in his right hand. A Santa Ana officer, earlier, advised officers that Lopez had a gun. Officers fired at him multiple times. Lopez was pronounced dead on the scene but a gun wasn’t located. 

Instead, Gallacher said authorities found a black pouch containing an empty plastic water bottle under his body.

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

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