Law enforcement – it’s an election issue with life-or-death stakes in Orange County.
It can be at the top of voters’ minds at the ballot box, shaping the makeup of city councils, the size of municipal police departments, and the direction of policy on things like equipment spending and officer oversight.
Another driving election force?
Police officers themselves.
In Santa Ana, for instance, the local police union’s campaign finance disclosures show it’s spent nearly $1 million, across three different committees, in digital ads, mailers and polling for certain candidates in local elections, and not just Santa Ana’s.
The union under president Gerry Serrano spent more than $16,000 this year on independent mailers opposing OC supervisor candidate Vicente Sarmiento, who’s currently Santa Ana’s mayor. The disclosures show the union also spent $2,200 in direct contributions to Anaheim mayoral candidate Ashleigh Aitken.
The union funded independent mailers, digital ads and campaign text messages for four Santa Ana council candidates, three of them incumbents: Council members Phil Bacerra, David Penaloza, and Nelida Mendoza – along with mayoral hopeful Valerie Amezcua.
Anaheim’s police union spent nearly $200,000 on local elections this year, much of it if not all independently, according to the union’s disclosures. More than $32,000 in digital ads and mailers went in support of Aitken.
The disclosures show more than $23,000 went in support of District 6 council candidate Natalie Meeks, and more than $19,000 each in support of District 2 candidate and current Councilwoman Gloria Ma’ae and District 3 candidate Natalie Rubalcava-Garcia.
A National Microcosm?
Over the last two years, Santa Ana council members’ starkly different policing views have made the city a flashpoint in the public safety debate throughout Southern California.
And a city to watch this November.
The progressive camp on the dais was elected in 2020, reflecting a younger political crowd that critically examined policing – and its share of the taxpayer budget – at public meetings in the park-poor and working-class Latino town, where police lawsuits cost City Hall at least $24 million in the 2010s.
“We moved in a direction where police oversight, which was off the table for years and not really supported, was now unavoidable,” said Manny Escamilla, a progressive city historian and former City Hall staffer who’s challenging Penaloza this election year.
Penaloza didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Escamilla spoke to Voice of OC over the phone just hours before council members, including Escamilla’s opponent, in a first reading voted unanimously to establish the city’s first police oversight commission on Tuesday night.
The ordinance will come back for a second reading on Nov. 15.
Now, with an election able to shake up the dais, “I think it’s really just a matter of how strong and influential the oversight board will be in actually bringing about systemic change to public safety efforts in the city,” Escamilla said.
Though not everyone in Santa Ana views law enforcement the same way.
In August, people queued up at a council meeting to speak on city efforts to redevelop the old fire station on Cypress Street, long blighted and boarded with plywood in the Eastside/Pacific Park neighborhood.
In their comments, many proposed the building be an expansion of the city’s police athletic league, in which members of the department coach kids in sports, help with homework, and might occasionally teach them fingerprinting and DNA evidence collection.
A number of self-identified neighborhood residents welcomed the thought of a closer police presence on their street.
It’s a sentiment that council incumbents like Phil Bacerra – a vocal law enforcement supporter who tends to push back on proposals by the left-wing progressive camp under Sarmiento – are partly banking on in their reelection bids.
Topics involving policing, he said, will at times draw public input at council meetings from outside groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. The group most recently weighed in on the historic police oversight commission that the council enacted on Tuesday night.
“This isn’t the Floral Park Neighborhood Association, or the Sandpointe Neighborhood Association weighing in. This is the American Civil Liberties Union … that tells you something. That this is not local, community driven rhetoric. This is stuff that’s coming from the outside. They believe they have a perception of our city, of our community, that they can bully and push a certain agenda through the council and thrust it upon the city,” Bacerra said.
Yet there are activist groups like Chispa and residents like Fernando Delgado, both from Santa Ana and with views echoing the civil rights group.
Salgado, an eight-year resident and teacher, said there’s a “clear distinction” in Santa Ana politics between two ideologies on the solution to crime:
“The ‘more police’ crew and the ‘provide basic needs’ crew,” he said. “Most crime can be attributed to struggles with financial insecurity or struggles with mental illness. These are two significant social determinants that our current approach to crime doesn’t address.”
It’s a frequent topic in Delgado’s Tik Tok videos, which he makes to run viewers through the inflection point Santa Ana finds itself in now, on issues like the police union and renter policies. He’s also active on Instagram.
“I wanted to make it easily digestible and accessible for people who are interested in knowing how their city operates,” Delgado said, “and how these different special interests influence our local officials.”
Since 2016, Santa Ana’s police union has been a heavy citywide elections spender. Its president, Gerry Serrano, has also gained notoriety over what city officials described in writing as his willingness to “burn the city to the ground” in an effort to boost his pension.
Requests for comment to Serrano went unreturned Tuesday.
The outcome of the mayor’s race could tip the scales of the council’s current dynamic.
Amezcua is the mayoral candidate with the city police union’s endorsement, and that of the Anaheim police union’s.
She said she doesn’t see any concern with the Santa Ana police union’s spending in a Tuesday phone interview.
“It’s the men and women, sworn and non sworn, serving our police department in Santa Ana,” she said. “They’re the men and women who serve our community. It’s not one person. It’s not one organization.”
Asked about the union’s approach of $1 million in political spending this year, Amezcua said, “I was a member of OCEA (the county employees union) for 30 years. I don’t have a problem with any union being involved.”
She and Bacerra both argue there’s still large support for policing in town.
“I’m not saying that it’s a war zone,” Amezcua said. “But some people don’t feel safe going out at night, eating in our establishments, and sending their kids to our schools. Being safe is the foundation of everything that we do in our lives.”
Delgado, on the other hand, said he does feel safe.
“I understand why folks who aren’t as familiar with our city may feel insecure walking our city streets … I understand why certain more vulnerable populations in our city may have reason to feel unsafe, particularly the women of our city who are at a higher risk of being attacked or otherwise harassed,” he said.
But Delgado argues more police won’t solve the problem.
“Safer streets are the result of investment in community, addressing the root causes of crime, not just throwing people in cages and hoping that the problems go away,” he said.
Oversight and Public Bargaining
This year’s election – and the potential shifts to cities’ political balances of power – come at a time when towns like Anaheim and Santa Ana are rethinking police policy.
Officials in both cities are pushing to negotiate police officer salaries in public.
And in Santa Ana this year, council members directed staff to come back with options for changing providers of the police department’s policy manual, citing a Voice of OC report from 2020 that counted at least $24 million in police lawsuit costs to taxpayers over a decade.
And despite the dais’ ideological divide, there are some things everyone can agree on, like the need for some type of police review panel.
“You’re not having to convince any of us about oversight,” Bacerra said.
But the election can affect the newly-minted panel’s future trajectory, Escamilla said. There are certain things the panel in its current state can’t do, like conduct truly independent investigations of police misconduct, without amendments to the city charter.
The future council post-election would need to approve such changes to go on a ballot measure before voters in the next election two years from now.
“The bigger question is not so much, ‘Will there be some kind of oversight board?” Escamilla said. “It’s, ‘Will there be any real teeth to it?’”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Santa Ana police union spent money on mailers supporting OC Supervisor candidate Vicente Sarmiento. That money was spent in opposition. We regret the error.