A 50-year push for police oversight in Santa Ana has now birthed a civilian watchdog panel, after years of study and two unanimous votes by City Council members this month.

Final approval came Nov. 15. 

The next day, police officers made an afternoon traffic stop of a car off South McClay Street near a middle school, the Santa Ana Zoo and the DMV, according to a Nov. 17 incident bulletin from the Santa Ana Police Dept.    

During the stop, “officers encountered a subject armed with a handgun and an officer-involved shooting occurred,” the department wrote.

Officers shot the person in the torso, who was transported to a “local trauma center” and later pronounced dead, the agency wrote, adding that neither the other two in the car nor the officers were injured.

The department hasn’t said what led to officers opening fire, or whether the armed subject who died had the weapon in hand, or fired it at all.

Santa Ana Police Sgt. Maria Lopez, the department spokesperson, declined to give these details, citing newly-launched investigations between Santa Ana Police homicide detectives, Orange County District Attorney’s Office investigators, and the city police department’s Internal Affairs Division. 

But residents will soon have a forum to probe these types of incidents themselves, with bi-monthly meetings expected to happen under the yet-to-be appointed police oversight commission, which will have a process for receiving officer misconduct complaints and use of force records. 

And an oversight director to probe them. 

Though there are limits to this panel’s authority. 

Without amendments to the city charter, its powers are advisory, and any investigatory findings or policy direction would be purely recommendations-based. 

The commission is newly minted but now sits at a crossroads. 

Will an incoming City Council expand the panel’s power in the coming years, or has that power already hit the ceiling?

The long-term goal is to vest the panel with “more authority and independence,” said Bulmaro “Boomer” Vicente, a policy director for the community activist group called Chispa, during a phone interview.

“The panel currently falls under the city manager. We would want something similar to what Berkeley did, in which they created …  one which doesn’t fall within the jurisdiction of the city manager, meaning more access and more authority over investigating complaints, hiring and firing,” he said. 

The push began in 1965, when the Black civil rights group called Orange County Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) “presented this demand to the then-city council,” said Vicente in public comments on Nov. 15. 

“Fifty-seven years later, this demand will finally become a reality.”

But the panel’s future hinges on the majority will of the incoming city council, which will take the oath of office at the end of this year and have a new police-backed mayor.

Valerie Amezcua, also the city’s first woman mayor, got the police union endorsement, whereas many of those who have pushed the oversight commission are more critical about policing’s role in public safety and daily life. 

Among the panel’s fiercest proponents is Councilmember Johnathan Ryan Hernandez, who watched Anaheim police shoot his cousin to death after his cousin, Brandon Lopez, fled a police pursuit last year.

[Read: Santa Ana Councilman Watches Police Kill Cousin He Said Had Mental Health Crisis] 

Amezcua declined a request for an interview on her thoughts and vision for the oversight commission’s future. 

Though another emerging council newcomer, Benjamin Vazquez, is open about his.  

The city’s progressive wing is on track to maintain a sizable voting bloc on the dais, with current police union-backed incumbent Nelida Mendoza falling behind Vazquez, her progressive challenger, by 79 votes as of Monday’s election results update. 

Vazquez, who’s yet to be sworn in, outlined his vision for the panel on the night the council clinched its formation. 

“I’m happy to have it getting passed,” he said in public comments before the council’s final reading.

“And I’m looking forward to having an amendment to the charter to make it even stronger, later.”

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