After years of community activism, Santa Ana is one step closer to formalizing its long awaited and historic police oversight commission.
City Council members on Tuesday voted unanimously in support of what will, for now, be an advisory board but with an “Independent Oversight Director” to investigate police misconduct complaints and use of force reports as directed by commissioners.
Earlier in the day, community organizers and activist organizations like Chispa rallied outside City Hall in support of the decision.
“What we’re asking for is, let’s get this done. It’s been 57 years since police oversight was first proposed in Santa Ana and tonight is our opportunity to make history,” said Hairo Cortes, Chispa’s executive director, in public comments.
The city’s recent policy movements have had an effect on neighbors.
On the same night and across the Santa Ana river, a City Council member in Anaheim cited Santa Ana’s earlier push last month to negotiate police officer salaries in public.
And pushed to do the same.
“Perhaps it behooves the council to consider moving some negotiations to the public space. So the public knows that the council is advocating and negotiating for them,” said Councilmember Jose Moreno during Anaheim’s council meeting.
Anaheim’s panel has been criticized for its lack of reach, with commissioners limited to reviewing community complaints, inspiring Santa Ana officials this year to pursue a panel with more investigatory fact-finding power into officer misconduct.
In Santa Ana, residents will have a public forum to raise questions and concerns with police conduct and policies, pending the commission ordinance’s final approval in a second reading at the council’s Nov. 15 meeting.
Commissioners could receive, hear and review misconduct complaints; allow anonymous complaints; review complaints filed within 180 days of the misconduct by an officer; and make disciplinary recommendations to city officials.
It’s not a truly independent oversight body, but activists and city officials call it a start.
The body’s authority – and ability to conduct investigations – is limited by the city charter’s outlined council-manager form of government.
“Those are thresholds we can’t address tonight … in the interest of having a commission of residents as robust as we possibly can,” said Mayor Vicente Sarmiento at Tuesday’s meeting.
To change the panel’s legal limits would mandate changes to the city charter, which would have to go before voters on a ballot measure. Council members would also need to approve the ballot measure language at a meeting. The next opportunity for that is in 2024.
The commission’s access to records would also be hindered by the Police Officers’ Bill of Rights and civil service protections “embedded in state law,” Sarmiento said at Tuesday’s meeting.
“Complete and prompt” access to records, as provided for the commission in the ordinance’s current writing, “will certainly depend on conformance with all of the state laws,” said City Attorney Sonia Carvalho.
“The charter would need to be reconsidered to the extent there is more autonomy warranted and needed by a future council and members of the public,” Sarmiento said.
It’s not the first time Santa Ana council members have probed the legal thresholds of what they can and can’t do to keep tabs on law enforcement.
After claims that some council members were leaking closed session negotiation information to the city’s police union, Councilmember Jessie Lopez proposed moving police union bargaining into public open session last month.
Such labor discussions – which can shape a police officer’s salary, and at what cost it will come to taxpayers – happen in what’s known as closed session meetings. They aren’t public and are narrowly allowed under state open meetings laws.
But labor contacts aren’t required to be secretly negotiated, said the city attorney at the time.
In Anaheim, City Attorney Rob Fabela told council members on Tuesday they can provide direction to their labor negotiators in front of residents when negotiating public safety contracts – although he said closed session allows officials to speak freely without disclosing to the public or the bargaining units.
Fabela also said bargaining units will have to agree to negotiate the contracts themselves out in the open.
The discussion came at the request of Councilman Moreno, who referenced the recent discussion in Santa Ana.
“In Santa Ana, it was a function of allegations that information being shared in closed session for the negotiations were being shared with the leadership of the actual associations with which the city was negotiating, which means at that point, the city’s negotiating against itself,” he said.
Cities generally spend large chunks of municipal budgets on police salaries and equipment.
In Anaheim, council members allocated $172 million of the city’s $409 million general fund to police spending, according to the city’s 2022-23 adopted operating budget.
Meanwhile, the Anaheim Police Association poured around $237,000 across the campaigns of four city council candidates: over $90,000 for Ashleigh Aitken, about $37,000 for Gloria Ma’ae, around $60,000 for Natalie Meeks and over $50,000 for Natalie Rubalcava in this election.
The firefighters association has spent around $65,000 across the campaigns of three city council candidates: over $35,000 for Aitken, less than $14,000 for Ma’ae and over $16,000 for Rubalcava.
“The secondary rationale for me here is how much our police and fire associations have chosen to engage in political campaigns to elect council members of preference. Yet they’re allowed to go into closed session, these council members elected through these dollars to then negotiate what would be essentially salary and benefits for those same entities,” Moreno said.
Hosam Elattar contributed reporting.