What was supposed to be a routine contract renewal this week for Lexipol – a private company that tells Santa Ana police officers when to use deadly force and conduct body searches – became a public push for community-driven department policies instead.
A police oversight commission has yet to form in town, yet crucial questions are already materializing in Santa Ana about who should author police officers’ procedural guidelines:
The public, or a private company?
The question most recently surfaced at the City Council’s regular meeting on Tuesday night.
There, council members unanimously delayed approval of the proposed contract with Lexipol — to continue its policy updates and training services for the department — by 30 days, by which time city staff will come back with alternatives to the company’s services, ones involving public feedback.
“Decisions regarding life or death are decisions that should not be made by a private company, but with community input,” said Councilmember Johnathan Ryan Herndandez during the meeting.
Hernandez proposed to reject the contract proposal, while other council members initially voiced concern it would create a policy vacuum and undue workload on city staff in the meantime – all while the city has yet to establish a much-anticipated police oversight commission.
The proposed oversight panel still needs council approval, and when exactly that will happen isn’t clear.
“It’s expected to return to council later this year. We don’t have a specific date,” said city spokesperson Paul Eakins on Wednesday.
By its own count, Lexipol has equipped 8,100 police agencies with its policies, and city staff this week said contracting out the police manual is a way to keep down expenses and shave off work they’d otherwise face in-house, to maintain what are often thick manuals and keep them current on changing case law.
Speakers in Santa Ana on Tuesday took aim at Lexipol for what they argued was the company’s truer purpose – to protect officers rather than the public, and shield them from legal liability and accountability.
In an emailed statement on Wednesday, the company argued it provides “constitutionally sound policy guidance that comply with federal and state laws, and we deliver timely policy updates as legislation, case law and best practices change.”
“Our content is meant as a starting point to be customized to fit the unique needs of each customer and community,” the company statement adds. “We encourage each agency to review all policies before implementing them and to engage relevant stakeholders in that review process. Our online platform is built to support this process.”
Lexipol’s policies are in effect across most of the state.
As many as 95% of law enforcement agencies up and down California relied on Lexipol’s policy manual as of 2018, said University of California, Los Angeles researchers in a study that year on the “privatization of police policymaking.”
On Tuesday, the issue in Santa Ana played out first in public comments, notably over Lexipol’s conflict with a statewide deadly force reform measure known as the California Act to Save Lives – which changed deadly force’s legal standard from “reasonable” to “necessary” – by releasing a ready-made use-of-force policy that critics say ignored it.
“Once the new law went into effect, Lexipol released an unlawful use of force policy that completely omitted the new standard and failed to comply with (the Act) in several ways,” said Jennifer Rojas of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California during public comment.
In 2020, the Santa Ana City Attorney’s office wrote a letter to Lexipol stating their policy was “legally deficient” and “does not precisely comport with the legislative changes set forth in [the Act to Save Lives].”
“And the office worked with community members to bring the policy into compliance with the law,” Rojas said.
City Attorney Sonia Carvalho, during the meeting, cited that year’s policy issue as an example of how “we do not take their (Lexipol) policies for granted.”
“Some issues were brought to our attention in a complaint letter by the ACLU,” Carvalho recalled. “But we were very quick to respond and agreed, and we worked collaboratively with police leadership, who were very open to the changes we made. We were one of the first cities to make those changes.”
Carvalho said the city used to do police policy maintenance in-house, but outsourced to Lexipol when budget constraints reared their heads. Now, Carvalho said from the dais, the costs “are significantly less” than the old in-house system.
The switch happened sometime around the early 2010s, according to department officials responding to council questions at the meeting.
Contract Brings out Families Impacted by Police
The issue drew the mother and sister of David Sullivan, a 19-year-old who Buena Park police shot and killed during a 2019 traffic stop in Fullerton.
District Attorney Todd Spitzer’s office later cleared the officers, Jennifer Tran and Bobby Colon, in the fatal shooting, which happened after stopping Sullivan for expired tags.
Video of the incident from a body-worn camera showed Sullivan at first interacting with officers in a cool manner. Then he tried to flee with the car he stole, hitting another vehicle, and set off on foot until officers fired seven shots.
The following year, protesters called on Spitzer to reopen the probe.
And during public comment on Tuesday, Sullivan’s family members called on the Santa Ana council to reject Lexipol, tying the company to the same system they say got their son and brother killed.
“David was unarmed, he didn’t have a weapon, he was seemingly running away, he had a packed bag full of clothes … and he took a car that didn’t belong to him from the gas station he was working at. He didn’t hurt anyone or have a weapon,” said his mother, Deanna Sullivan, in public comment.
The officers – “they have these layers of protection … layers and layers of protection,” she went on. “Cops are fallible, we know that.”
“David was my little brother,” said his sister, Sam Sullivan, after Deanna. “He was killed at 19 and I was 20, 21 at the time, I’m now 24. It’s affected our entire family in a way that ripples out into the community, and now activism is the only thing I can do. I can’t do anything else because my brother is gone. He will never have the chance to take accountability for his actions. He will never have a chance to grow from that point in his life at 19 where he messed up. These officers that killed him … nothing happened to them.”
But that alone didn’t draw the family out.
Lexipol’s founder is Bruce Praet, a former LA police union attorney who defended the City of Buena Park from the Sullivan family’s ensuing wrongful death lawsuit.
Praet didn’t personally respond to requests for comment through emails and phone calls to his Santa Ana-based law firm, Ferguson Praet & Sherman, on Wednesday.
The issue of police violence touches one of the Santa Ana council’s own elected seatholders.
Earlier in the evening, Hernandez called Sullivan’s family to the front of the meeting chambers, alongside that of Fermin Vincent Valenzuela, who died of asphyxiation after getting hit with a stun gun and chokehold during a 2016 fight with Anaheim police, and whose family was subsequently awarded $13 million by a federal jury.
Hernandez was about to proclaim Sept. 28 as a “Day to Remember Victims of Police Violence” in Santa Ana.
But he called up one more family.
“It’s been nearly a week since an in-custody death took place in this city, and close to one year since Councilman Hernandez’s cousin Brandon Lopez was killed by Anaheim PD while SAPD stood by,” said Hector Bustos, a community activist and incoming Santa Ana Unified School District board member, in public comments Tuesday.
Are Bad Policies Costing Taxpayers More Money?
Hernandez, in pushing for a review of department policies, cited a Voice of OC story from 2020 on police-related lawsuit settlement costs to Santa Ana taxpayers.
The story reported that police litigation added up to more than $24 million in legal costs from 2011 through 2020. The data included costs for outside attorneys’ fees, but not those for cases handled by in-house legal counsel.
And it was a figure that other officials repeated throughout the night.
“If you do the math: $24 million in monies paid for settlements and bad police practices,” said Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento. “And that doesn’t mean our police are bad, that just means training is not that good. And that goes at the root of what we’re talking about.”
Fernando Delgado, a former teacher and local activist, said “If SAPD truly wants to build a bridge between law enforcement and the community, let this be the first step. Reject the agreement with Lexipol.”
SAPD Deputy Chief Robert Rodriguez couched Lexipol as a “library” of “law enforcement practices” – policies which Lexipol will provide and “we’ll review” and “modify” so “the policy fits the community at large.”
“We own the content,” Rodriguez said, responding to council members’ questions, “and it’s tailored to the needs of our department.”
To people like Bustos, “Lexipol is a private company whose primary priority is protecting police agencies from liability, rather than protecting life.”
“And their business model undermines public safety in our community,” Bustos said.
Sarmiento said the extra costs of bringing the police policies back in-house might be worth it.
“If we have to pay for our city attorney’s office to do that, that’s what we should do. That is money well spent. That’s money invested to make sure the standard we’re going to be training our officers for reflects our community’s needs.”
Lexipol’s policy manual is used by “many other cities,” Sarmiento said. “That doesn’t mean we have similar circumstances to other cities.”