Police oversight in some form or another is on the way for Santa Ana. 

And City Council members want it to have more teeth than Anaheim’s suggestions-bound police review board, despite limitations under Santa Ana’s city charter.

“I certainly don’t want this to be a replica of the Anaheim model,” said Mayor Vicente Sarmiento, who’s more aligned with progressives on the issues of police spending. “So that, at its base, is something I want to make sure it’s clear.” 

Next month, the council is set to enact a civilian commission to take complaints against police – including anonymous ones – and probe unreasonable force and officer harassment cases in an advisory capacity. 

It comes after a series of meetings over the past several years on what the commission should and shouldn’t do – most recently last Tuesday, where council members directed staff to bring it back for approval at the next Nov. 1 meeting.

As currently drafted, the commission would be something of a publicized community forum, holding monthly public meetings on issues concerning the Santa Ana Police Dept. The panel could, if approved next month, make public suggestions on officer discipline and policy. 

The council would appoint the commissioners and create an Independent Oversight Director to probe officer misconduct as directed by the panel. The director could subpoena witnesses during such probes and can request general citizen complaints and “use of force” reports kept by the police chief, per the commission’s draft ordinance.

The findings and outcomes would all be advisory. And the commission would have the same police records access as any civilian filing a formal request – that is to say, documents and files subject to existing records request disclosure laws. 

And restrictions. 

For instance, the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights can block access to records involving an officer facing potential discipline.

The city charter reserves the stronger investigatory powers – like the power to subpoena documents – to the City Manager and council members. To have an oversight body truly independent of the police department would require city charter revisions. 

Such amendments would take another two years, after two years of staff research to bring the initial framework forward. Charter amendments are up to voters and it’s much too late to drop the question this November. 

What’s before the council now is not what activists or even city staff would call a truly independent oversight body. 

Instead, activists groups like the ACLU and Chispa said the initial framework staff presented – before a number of council adjustments last week – rang echoes of Anaheim’s police review system.

And not in a good way.

Anaheim’s Police Review Board formed in the wake of back-to-back police killings of young Latinos in the early 2010s. 

But in the time since, it’s been criticized for its lack of authority and reach, and it’s a model that most of Santa Ana’s council members – as divided as they are on the policing topic – have urged against in their city. 

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the Anaheim version does not do enough,” said Councilmember Phil Bacerra, who’s at times clashed with progressives over policing. “I think there should be some sort of productivity to come out of this.”

An Anaheim Police Review Board member even came out to Santa Ana last week to discourage its replication. 

“In all honesty, we are actually very limited in what we can do and I believe this is where your city has the ability to create an effective oversight board and learn from what we have done in Anaheim,” said board member Daisy Chavez, speaking in public comments. 

“For example, we currently do not have the ability to issue disciplinary recommendations for officer misconduct … I have seen multiple instances of officer misconduct within the department and have been extremely disappointed to see that those engaging in misconduct are not held accountable … this was one of the reasons I decided to join the police board.”

Santa Ana officials, likewise, pushed for their commission to have that ability on Tuesday.

What’s before the council now is what City Attorney Sonia Carvalho deemed a “creative attempt” to get Santa Ana’s commission as close as it can to an independent body – but within the current confines of existing local and state laws.

“The way I see this framework happening is, I don’t want the great to be the enemy of the good,” said Councilmember Thai Viet Phan during the discussion. “Unfortunately we can’t do (everything) at the exact same time.”

That’s not to say the panel would have no power, City Hall staff said.

The power to conduct truly independent investigations into city departments and personnel lies with the City Manager and council members. 

But Carvalho said council members have the power to approve such probes and delegate them to others authorized. 

In this case, the police review commission that’s up for approval.

“You can direct the investigation at any time of anything you want. You can delegate who you want to investigate. If there was a serious incident … the city council could direct this independent oversight person to conduct this investigation,” Carvalho said.

For example, “the commission can say, ‘Here are five different things we have noticed, seen, and received that we want the council to take a look at and give us the independent authority to investigate these issues,” Phan said. “We would still be required as a council to make a decision to investigate but we don’t circumvent any authority.”

Carvalho called the City of Berkeley an example of a police oversight model “that has true independence.”

Berkeley voters passed a charter amendment in 2020 that created the city’s Police Accountability Board. The board and its director report directly to the mayor and city council and are entirely independent of the city manager. The model went online in July of 2021. 

But the commission in place now was not the city’s first iteration. 

It replaced a prior panel formed in 1973. 

Roughly the same type of panel before Santa Ana council members next month.

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