A proposal by Santa Ana’s mayor to freeze promotions for top police department brass in favor of more patrolmen had council members this week questioning what it takes to fortify the city’s police force.

Or whether it was too top heavy. 

At Tuesday night’s meeting, Mayor Valerie Amezcua argued that more than 30 officer vacancies were ramping up overtime costs by millions, and questioned whether response times to calls of varying priority could justify higher-ranking staff salaries.

“This is about having enough officers on our streets to respond to calls,” said Amezcua at the City Council’s regular meeting on Tuesday, who on multiple occasions wondered aloud whether sergeants and commanders should work patrol shifts to help lighten the load.

More importantly, she proposed the idea of freezing police management promotions until at least 90% of the department’s rank-and-file officer vacancies were filled. 

The idea didn’t seem to gain much support from her colleagues, though some did express interest in more information about staffing and command ratios.

Both City Manager Kristine Ridge and Police Chief David Valentin questioned the accuracy of the initial information Amezcua compiled for a report attached to her agenda item. 

“I’m very concerned when information is haphazard or is not accurate,” Valentin said, answering council questions that night. 

“When I first received the submission … yes there was a lot of inaccurate information in it including in one of the attachments,” said Ridge, who added that some information had to be “crossed out.”

But it did prompt a discussion about how to reconcile millions in overtime costs and administrative salaries with department performance – or whether a rush to hire more officers would lead to a more troubling misconduct scenario. 

Council members like David Penaloza voiced interest in staff coming back at a future meeting with more information on vacancies and the amount of “sergeants per shifts.”

With Valentin at the podium to answer questions, Amezcua mentioned the department’s overtime budgets over the last several years. 

In the 2021-22 fiscal year, the department budgeted more than $4 million for overtime but reported actuals of “over $5 million, almost $6 million,” Amezcua told Valentin from the dais. “In 22-23, overtime budget was $3 million in change. You hit almost $5 million in change, overtime.”

“Yes ma’am,” Valentin replied. 

Amezcua challenged Valentin on other things, like the devotion of officer time to scouring social media. 

“You do not need an officer to go through a police academy to handle social media,” she said. 

Her public challenges come at a time where Valentin’s leadership has been challenged from another end, by the president of the city police officers’ union, Gerry Serrano, who city officials accused of running a pressure campaign to boost his pension by filing lawsuits accusing city executives, like Valentin, of retaliation and impropriety.

In December, an Orange County Superior Court Judge ruled that the union under Serrano had filed frivolous claims and ordered the union to pay the city’s legal fees. 

“Maybe there’s other reasons (new officers) don’t want to come here,” said Amezcua, who got the police union endorsement in the mayoral election last year. “I don’t know, there’s many things going on in this city.” 

Amezcua denied bringing the discussion up as an “attack” on anyone.

“I didn’t do this haphazard, and you know me well enough to know I do my research, and I do it well,” she said toward the end of it.

Answering council questions, Valentin warned that leadership staff like sergeants were the “first line of supervision.”

A rush to hire more officers while stagnating upward movement through the ranks, he argued, would lead to “inexperienced, naive and immature” officers “conducting police work” across town with a “lack of appropriate level of supervision and management leadership.”

“That’s a bad combination and a recipe for something not good to occur,” said Valentin, who also said that in law enforcement agencies, “even here in OC, as long as (officers) pass the minimum qualifications, they’re through the door.”

“We need to guard against that.”

Councilmembers like Thai Viet Phan warned against freezing promotions.

“I know there are going to be folks who have worked hard … and we shouldn’t punish them because of an issue that’s unrelated,” Phan said. 

“Yes we have vacancies and should do everything to promote (hiring), but if somebody is hitting all the high marks — promoting those who have earned it is something I would like to see because I want to reward officers who have gotten there,” she said.

In its most recent “year-end review” report, the police department claims to have decreased 9-1-1 call response times from 6 minutes and 25 seconds in 2020 to 5 minutes and 22 seconds in 2022.

“Over the past four years you’ve seen a downward trajectory trend line in calls for service, priority one 9-1-1 calls … that happens because we prioritize with intention, that patrol be staffed first and foremost,” Valentin said.

“This notion of being top-heavy at SAPD — we have shrunk the management ranks over the decades.”

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