Will politics stall appointments to Santa Ana’s long-awaited police oversight commission? 

Should Santa Ana drop the use of unleashed police dogs for apprehension, arrest, and crowd control?

Will City Hall provide new officers with housing incentives in order to attract department hires and beef up the police force? 

All these questions got a public spotlight within the span of a single City Council meeting this week, the latest sign of an existential law enforcement debate that regularly punctuates Santa Ana policymaking, and shapes an often hard to predict dynamic of a council split on policing. 

It all happened on the heels of public outrage earlier that night, regarding revelations about a fake “Be on the Lookout” (BOLO) flyer making fun of the police killing of Brandon Lopez in September of 2021, after a police pursuit and standoff involving Anaheim and Santa Ana police ended with Lopez, who was unarmed, being drawn out of his car with a flashbang and fatally shot. 

“Are we wrong to interpret that the Santa Ana Police Dept. thought that Brandon’s death was satirical? Amusing? Funny at best?” asked Lopez’s mother, Johanna Lopez, in public comments on Tuesday.

The prank flyer was first revealed in an April 4 story by the left-leaning Los Angeles news site known as Knock LA. 

The 2021 killing sent shockwaves through town, as Lopez was the cousin of Santa Ana City Council Member Johnathan Ryan Hernandez, who told Voice of OC in an April 13 phone interview that the flyers were likely posted in multiple areas throughout the department. 

He cites a 33-minute phone call he said he had on March 24 with Police Chief David Valentin. Hernandez said that during that call, Valentin told him that multiple prank BOLOs were “posted all throughout the police department, on several floors.”

Asked about Hernandez’s account of their conversation, Valentin declined a request for comment on Wednesday through a department spokesperson over email, beyond saying that “the Department can confirm flyers were located in an isolated area of the Department.”

A State Bill Prompts a Local Police Debate 

The killing has since rocked policing debates on the Santa Ana dais at meetings, including on Tuesday, when Hernandez and Councilmember Ben Vazquez both opposed a resolution proposed by Mayor Valerie Amezcua in support of using unleashed police dogs in criminal situations. 

Amezcua proposed the council stand in opposition to potential state legislation that would prohibit the use of unleashed dogs in apprehending people and controlling crowds, arguing alongside like-minded council members that canine use has evolved and is safer than tasers and guns.

Council members voted 5-2 in support of opposing the bill, with council members Hernandez and Vazquez opposed. 

Councilmember Jessie Lopez, who frequently sides with the council’s progressive wing on criticizing policing and its big taxpayer budget, was among the votes siding with Amezcua, a vocal policing proponent. 

“I would rather send a dog in to apprehend somebody than an officer having to pull out his firearm,” said Amezcua during the discussion. “I actually wish we had a couple more.”

Amezcua also wants more police officers in the department’s rank and file, and during a budget discussion that same evening in which council members gave early pictures of their spending priorities this year to city staff, she proposed the idea of expanding the city’s officer hiring incentives. 

“Other cities we’ve talked about are offering … housing options, some are offering apartments for them to stay in so they don’t have to drive all the way (home and back to work),” Amezcua said in her early direction to staff. “There’s a way to get creative, to think out of the box.”

Amezcua also asked staff to look at hiring more non-sworn staff “that can respond to calls that sworn staff do not need to.”

“And I’m not going to give them a name, like social workers,” Amezcua said. “I’m sure we can figure out whether they’re intervention workers, I don’t know.”

On the use of police dogs, meanwhile, Hernandez voiced concern with the practice’s origins in slave catching – “a mainstay in this country’s dehumanizing cruel and violent abuse of African Americans and people of color for centuries” – but also questioned whether the department could have used a dog to resolve the 2021 situation with his cousin. 

“We have had instances in the past where we’ve had canines at our disposal, several of them, and we have had instances where we haven’t used them,” Hernandez said. “I don’t understand why we have so many resources that were not utilized.”

Vazquez said the proposed bill, AB 742, would still allow for dogs to be used in rescue and explosive and narcotic detection. 

“I’m in total agreement that we should not use canines for crowd control and on people,” he said. “That just seems very 1960s.”

Councilmember Thai Viet Phan said there are legitimate concerns about police dogs, but said the bill would paint a broad brush over Santa Ana’s police department with national statistics. 

“We can’t ignore the past and how these originally started but I also have to look at what are we doing now, and what does this mean for our city, and I do want to say our policy is quite clear,” Phan said, reading a section of the department’s canine policy.

It states: “Absent a reasonable belief that a suspect has committed, is committing or is threatening to commit a serious offense, mere flight from a pursuing officer, without any of the above conditions, shall not serve as the basis for the use of a canine to apprehend a suspect.”

Phan said it would be a decision better suited for the city’s long-awaited police oversight commission.

Council Struggles Police Oversight Panel Appointments

Appointments for the civilian watchdog panel are still underway, with some council members on Tuesday voicing concerns the process could become a political struggle in and of itself. 

It comes after Hernandez’s original pick to serve as his civilian police oversight commissioner, a community organizer named Fernando Delgado, got shot down by a majority of City Council members on April 4, over an anti-police social media post shared from an Instagram account Delgado’s affiliated with. 

The vote earlier this month disqualified him from a panel that would look at officer misconduct complaints in an advisory capacity, and captured an ideological struggle over the punitive extent of the commission’s goals. 

Delgado’s appointment was chiefly challenged by City Councilmember Phil Bacerra, who Delgado has criticized on social media. Bacerra said Delgado’s support for police abolition ran counter to what he said was the oversight commission’s true objective, to build community trust with policing and not a negative perception of it. 

Delgado’s council supporters, on the other hand, said a difference of beliefs and viewpoints was necessary to a commission taking a look at police officer misconduct.

On Tuesday, Hernandez delayed Bacerra’s own nomination to the panel, attorney Nadin Said, saying he wanted the chance to interview Said personally. 

“Respectfully, this is not the platform to do so,” said Hernandez at the public dais, who added that he would schedule a time to meet with Said in private and discuss the appointment, which he said he looked forward to supporting. “We welcome people with different perspectives.”

Bacerra motioned to approve Said’s appointment that night anyway. 

But the deciding vote was council member Phan, who on Tuesday sided with Hernandez out of “fairness” after siding with Bacerra earlier this month in opposing Hernandez’s nomination of Delgado.

“I am fully in support of Ms. Said. I know that she is an attorney who has done a lot of work in the minority community … However, I voted yes on Councilmember Hernandez’s submotion to give him the opportunity and a fair chance to meet with this candidate.”

Amezcua and Bacerra called for a new process to handle nominations. 

“If we’re going to go ahead and pull each nomination and interview them … maybe it’s better to circulate the nomination among council members, work through our aides to set up meetings and go ahead from there,” Bacerra said.

His nomination’s appointment will come back to the council on May 2.

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.