As Santa Ana City Council members enlist their first-ever police oversight commission, one nominated resident and vocal online activist found himself at the center of a battle this week for control of the panel’s aims. 

Fernando Delgado, a former schoolteacher and current community organizer, was not appointed to the civilian board in a split 4-3 City Council vote on Tuesday night, following a tense council debate over Instagram posts that his critics used to argue his bias against police. 

A narrow majority of council members agreed, arguing Delgado’s social media activity – posting regularly about police abolition on Instagram – disqualified him from an advisory body that would look at officer misconduct complaints in an advisory capacity.

“I do believe that I can be fair, impartial and remain unbiased,” said Delgado that night, who made himself available for public interviews by council members on the dais. 

He cited the language of the police commission’s founding ordinance – to improve transparency, accountability and public confidence in the Santa Ana Police Department. 

“I take this responsibility very seriously and I know how important it is for our residents to have full transparency from their local government, especially when it comes to the conduct of law enforcement in our neighborhoods,” Delgado said. 

While it turns out Delgado won’t sit on the board, his nomination by Council Member Johnathan Ryan Hernandez set off a struggle over the commission’s guiding principles and the punitive extent of its work.

Forming the Panel

Some council members argued the commission should build public trust in police, rather than fuel a negative perception. 

“I strongly believe that you do not support what this commission is about,” said Council Member Phil Bacerra to the nominee in front of him on Tuesday. Bacerra originally raised the issue with Delgado’s nomination back in March. 

While Council Member Thai Viet Phan said she agreed that philosophical differences could exist on the same body, she said any statements by Delgado online could be used in future efforts to overturn or appeal the panel’s decisions. 

“That’s my biggest concern, the legal bias that would really undermine what we’re trying to do here in the city,” Phan said. 

Three council members defended Delgado and voiced concern about the novelty of the proceedings – that the City Council rarely scrutinized one member’s appointment to this degree. 

“This is something we have never seen before,” said Hernandez during the interviews. “My concerns with bias are that one of my colleagues is singling you out due to how you have used your First Amendment right.”

Others called it a pro-police vendetta.

“My personal opinion is this is just retaliation to you because you express a different political view,” said Council Member Jessie Lopez to Delgado. “It’s okay for people to have a difference of opinion — to not agree on everything.”

Asked to respond to the vote over the phone on Wednesday, Delgado said, “I know the perspective I offer and background I have would be valuable to the commission representing a lot of people in the city who have critical opinions when it comes to law enforcement.”

Since city council members minted the panel in November, each appointment brings residents closer to regular public forums addressing longstanding concerns about the Santa Ana Police Department’s relationship with the residents it serves.

Council members Phil Bacerra and David Penaloza formally introduced the panel in 2020, and urged against it becoming a platform to lambast officers. Their ideas about the police tend to conflict with those of the city’s younger community activists.

Last year, Bacerra and the city’s former mayor seemed to agree that they don’t want to emulate their neighboring city, Anaheim’s recommendations-based police review board, which has been criticized for its ineffectiveness. 

Under the founding ordinance, the new commission can make recommendations with the help of a council-appointed “independent oversight director,” who has the power to conduct probes and subpoena witnesses.

The commission will not have the authority to discipline any officers.

Delgado’s failed appointment helped crack the issue wide open in a town that’s grappling with how best to deal with public safety issues — and whether Santa Ana has too big or too little of a police force.

The topic also unfolded in a separate discussion that night about whether to freeze promotions of top department brass until more patrolmen were hired.

An Ideological Split

Tuesday’s unsuccessful appointment was a continuation of an earlier discussion on March 21, when Hernandez’s nomination of Delgado fell under the agenda’s non-discussion – and generally noncontroversial – items of routine contracts and agreements up for council approval known as the consent calendar.

But Bacerra pulled the appointment for public debate, raising issue with and displaying two social media posts which Delgado recirculated from his Instagram account.

One was a graphic displaying four lines of the phrase, “Fuck a cop.” 

Another was an old photograph of a captured U.S. airman named Dewey Wayne Waddell, standing prisoner in 1967 and at the threat of a North Vietnamese guard’s bayonet.

“This is something that was posted on International Day of the Woman,” said Bacerra, holding the image of Waddell who was later released and returned home. 

Behind Waddell: “As you can see, it’s a Communist Viet Cong militia woman with a gun and a bayonet pointed to the back of a captured American soldier on a rice field during the Vietnam War.” 

Delgado reshared the Vietnam War post from another account onto his story. Another post Bacerra flagged was from a separate account Delgado’s affiliated with.

On Tuesday, Bacerra questioned Delgado on the motivation behind it. 

“Did anybody force you to post those pictures that I shared to the community at the last council meeting? Did anybody force you to do that?” he asked. 

Delgado’s answer:

“One of the posts was shared on a page that I am associated with. I don’t think you have any evidence that I was the one who shared that post. Do you?” 

“This is not a back-and-forth,” Bacerra responded.

Delgado expressed remorse for resharing the Vietnam War picture, after Council Member Phan at both the March and Tuesday meeting said it struck an emotional nerve as a representative of an immigrant community traumatized by that war.

“I had a conversation with several people about that post and I recognize that it may have been insensitive,” Delgado said. “And again, I recognize now that it probably should have included more context, but frankly has very little to do in my opinion with this police oversight commission.”

Phan, when it came time for her remarks on Tuesday, agreed that it was not an issue Delgado would be voting on. 

“We came to this country to have the freedom to say what we want to say. I want you to know that it’s not that it may be hurtful – it is hurtful,” Phan said. “You can have a political philosophy that is different, but the reality is millions of Vietnamese people and refugees are here today and have lost their lives.”

At the March 21 meeting, Bacerra said the commission is “too important” to appoint people “who have stated such extreme biases against all police and who do not share this council’s intention on the police oversight Commission of improving law enforcement operations, and who have expressed support for the Communists who murdered – they murdered – thousands of Vietnamese and Americans.”

At that same meeting, Bacerra and Penaloza argued that Delgado could not be impartial on officer conduct and therefore fell into conflict with their vision of a commission that set out to improve trust in law enforcement rather than delegitimize it. 

Penaloza said the community’s intention, in pushing for a police oversight commission, “was never to be punitive.”

“It was to build that trust in the community,” he said in March.

Making his case during the interviews, Delgado described his efforts to make people more civically engaged and informed about local issues through social media, making videos about how city government works and how to sign up to make public comments at meetings. 

“I feel similarly with this commission,” he said. “I’m very passionate about the issue of not only public safety, but I like to know that our city is doing the best it can to ensure that kids can grow up in a safe neighborhood and flourish … beyond just criminalization and incarceration.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated both posts were reshared directly from Delgado’s account. Only one was directly shared from his account. We regret the error.

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